Sotheby's and the cheated philatelist

January 4th, 2014

The famous auction house found itself embroiled in a sticky situation because of the case with a Belgian client happened in 2009.

Sotheby's is involved, to its great dismay, in a fraud investigated presently by the financial brigade of Paris. The client calls the famous auction house 625,000 euros in court for the loss of a part of legendary stamp collection.

In 2009, the Brussels citizen decided to sell 48 stamp albums she had inherited from her father, thus she contacted Sotheby’s France, which put her in touch with its vice president Alain Renner. She sent him a photographic survey. In early May, Renner came to Brussels accompanied by his expert, Gregory Russel. They offered to put the collection up for the auction at Sotheby’s in Paris, expecting to draw more than 600, 000 euros. Their interlocutor was seduced by this amount exceeding her expectations.

On June 5, the two men returned to the bank of Brussels to take the collection from safe without making up an inventory. "They went to the nearby grocery store to fetch boxes.

I was confused, says the owner. But they told me they were in a hurry and it would be easier for them to take the inventory upon their arrival in Paris. I trusted them. And the Sotheby’s prestige reassured me as well."

The vice-president gave her a certificate of deposit from his company, which was describing very generally "48 Belgian stamp albums 1892-1970" and "a lot of philately in bulk" evaluated "from 500 000 to 750 000 euros". A sale date was set "after thorough assessment, on December 10, 2009 in Paris".

In fact, it has never been put on the calendar. Despite its retries, the client received no news throughout summer. "In September, Alain Renner said that, ultimately, the collection wasn't worth so much. It wasn't even located at Sotheby's, but at an expert's, no one had warned me. He told me that it would be put on sale at the auctioneer in Toulouse Marc Labarbe, with whom he was associated. And my collection ended up there after a curious detour to a philatelic exhibition in Monaco…"

Disappointed, the lady decided to go on, claiming to get at least 500, 000 euros of the sale. Gregory Russel offered her the inventory, which she mistakenly signed. "After that, I showed it to my son, who is a philatelist. He was intrigued by a series of anomalies.

Not being a specialist, I hadn't doubted at the time, but he realized it was missing essential parts. It was very well done."

Poorly presented, the sale was far from the expected amount. When the victim came to Toulouse to recover her property, she found "the ruined collection: it had been robbed", continues the lady's lawyer Jerome Herce. The box was in bulk and some rare pieces of the Belgian Congo non serrated stampswere missing. "The trick was well done, says the son. On some pages the stamps were repositioned to hide the absence of the missing.

Most are unique, because of the variety of colors, graphic or printing errors. The collection contained a rarest sheet of Belgian fifty centimes stamps dating from 1883. And others, that my parent had himself got during the war. He held models of Jean de Bast, great Belgian engraver, and the sheets of Leopold III, reserved at the king. There were also many stamps and essays on very popular topics, such as the Olympics and the Antarctic."

The president of Sotheby's Guillaume Cerutti and his vice-president were heard by the financial police, the latter as "assisted witness". They didn't comment on the ongoing procedure. But Sotheby’s estimates that the company isn't affected, as "the owner had agreed to put her collection on sale in Toulouse by signing all the papers knowingly".

Gregory Russel, who has never worked at Sotheby's "has no right to claim it", and the documents with company's letterhead he presented would be considered "false". In fact, Sotheby's is used to fix a threshold of a million euros at least to consider the sale of a private collection, not to mention that it doesn’t realize philatelic sales in Paris.

Nevertheless, Mr. Herce claims Sotheby's responsible for having imposed to his client "the adventurer with a shady past". He refers to another diversion of a collection of marine stamps belonging to an elderly couple from the East of France, also considered by the financial police. Consequently, Russel has been put under examination for abuse of trust, abuse of weakness, and concealment.