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A Billion-Dollar Scandal Turns the ‘King of Manuscripts’ Into the ‘Madoff of France’

PARIS — A letter from Frida Kahlo, signed and twice kissed with red lipstick, fetched just over $8,800. A page of scribbled calculations by Isaac Newton sold for about $21,000. A 1953 handwritten speech by John F. Kennedy took in $10,000.

“Adjugé!” said a gray-haired auctioneer, over and over, as he gaveled away nearly every one of the 200 lots for sale at Drouot, an auction house, in Paris in mid-November. The sale generated $4.2 million, which might sound like a triumph.

Actually, the sale was a fiasco, or, more precisely, one part of an ongoing fiasco. All of the items came from a now-defunct company, Aristophil, which starting in 2002 built one of the largest collections of rare books, autographs and manuscripts in history — some 136,000 pieces in all.

The buying spree turned the company’s founder and president, a stout 71-year-old named Gérard Lhéritier, into a celebrity. He opened the stately Museum of Letters and Manuscripts in a pricey neighborhood in Paris, and surrounded himself with French luminaries. They included former presidents, authors and journalists, who crowned him the “king of manuscripts.”

Today he’s widely known by a less flattering name, “the Bernie Madoff of France.”

Six years ago, the French authorities shut down Aristophil and arrested Mr. Lhéritier, charging him with fraud and accusing him of orchestrating what amounts to a highbrow Ponzi scheme. As he bought all those rare manuscripts and letters, he had them appraised, divided their putative value into shares and sold them as if they were stock in a corporation. Those shares were bought by 18,000 people, many of them elderly and of modest means, who collectively invested about $1 billion.

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Credit…Ben Quinton for The New York Times

Owning a stake in a Marquis de Sade scroll or a letter from Gandhi proved irresistible, in large part because that stake was supposed to grow. The wording of Aristophil’s contracts left investors with the vivid impression that after five years, the company would buy back their shares for at least 40 percent more than their original price. Lawyers for Mr. Lhéritier say the contracts never made any such a promise.

Some investors who wanted to cash in found that Aristophil would not pay out. In 2014, their complaints, along with a growing number of skeptical articles in the French media, prompted a police investigation, which concluded that Aristophil was sustained only by a regular flow of new investors and thus was doomed.

The authorities seized the entire collection and hired a company to catalog and auction off all 136,000 pieces, a process that will take years and hundreds of sales, just like the one in November. The hope is to return as much money as possible to investors, which, based on the more than two dozen auctions already held, will amount to perhaps 10 cents on the dollar.

The problem has nothing to do with quality. Everything in the collection is authentic, and a large part of it is highly coveted. But the authorities say that with the help of pliant experts, Mr. Lhéritier grossly inflated the value of pieces before he sold shares in them. A set of Einstein documents he bought from Christie’s in 2002 for $560,000, for instance, was divided into hundreds of shares and sold at a valuation of $13 million.

“He tricked us,” said Jean-Marie Leconte, a retiree who invested about $260,000 in shares of letters by Baudelaire, Charles de Gaulle and others. “There are people who lost all of their retirement money and had to sell their homes.” There has also been at least one suicide.

Other victims are furious at the government for intervening. Aristophil was solvent, so why close it? And why expect anything but disastrous auction results, with more than 100,000 items set to flood the market?

The outrage is heartily echoed by Gérard Lhéritier himself. Currently free on $2.1 million in bail, he predicted in December during a three-hour interview at his home near Nice that he would be vindicated.

“The government will see it made a huge mistake,” he said, by turns indignant and impishly grinning. “I hope that in the coming years, my 18,000 investors file a lawsuit against the government, demanding compensation. I would be happy to help.”

If nothing else, L’Affaire Aristophil is arguably the Frenchiest of all financial scandals. The country has a singular reverence for books and writers, reflected in statues of great authors that dot Paris, and one of the largest national archives in the world. It’s hard to imagine another place on earth where a frenzy could be whipped up over the personal letters of Voltaire or autographed scores by Mozart.

Mr. Lhéritier seems an unlikely figure to spark this mania. He was raised in a small village in the east of France, the son of a plumber, and he wrote “self-taught” in the diplomas section of his Who’s Who entry. Other than some handsome volumes he published to hype his collection, there aren’t a lot of books in his home.

Which is a villa, valued at $6 million, with a swimming pool, a panoramic view of the coast and, rather incongruously, a number of chickens roaming the backyard. In an expansive living room crammed with photographs and art, a huge TV played a loop of burning logs, right next to a log-less, ornate hearth.

“It’s a good time to save money,” Mr. Lhéritier said with a shrug.

None of it belongs to him anymore. All of his assets have been confiscated by the authorities. A judge has allowed him to continue living here as his case is adjudicated.

But he seemed every bit the lord of the manor, wearing an electric-blue sport jacket over a Hitchcockian frame. With surprising serenity and flashes of wit, he argued that he was the victim of petty French officials, who he believes were embarrassed by and resented his success. The logic of his narrative could be hard to follow, and the facts maddeningly difficult to pin down. He lectured, backtracked, dissembled and fibbed. (In a postinterview email, he claimed to be 82 years old, for some reason.)

As Mr. Lhéritier thumbed endlessly through receipts, catalogs and lists, his show-and-tell lacked neither vigor nor conviction.

“One day, if you want to be a crook, ask me about it,” he said at one point, smiling. “Because it’s a lot of work.”

Seventeen years ago, Mr. Lhéritier crashed through the doors of the genteel market for manuscripts with all the subtlety of a famished wild boar. That Einstein collection was the first he divvied into virtual shares. Soon, representatives of Aristophil were rampaging through auctions around Europe and the United States, outbidding everyone for anything of quality.

The inventory suggests a hoarder with taste. There are letters from Fidel Castro, Lincoln and Dickens; first editions by Charles Darwin, Jack Kerouac and Balzac; and sketches by Salvador Dalí, Andy Warhol and Federico Fellini. There’s even a musical score composed in Alcatraz by Al Capone.

By one estimate, Aristophil wound up with 5 percent of the global market for rare books and manuscripts. Many dealers were shut out for years, and not just at auction. In 2009, Anne Lamort, a seller in Paris, was on the verge of a career-making deal to buy a newly surfaced collection of Stendhal letters from a library in a castle in the south of France. After months of negotiations with the owner, she called one day to complete the details.

Sorry, said the seller. Aristophil had just offered three times as much money.

“This is what arrived in our quiet, polite, fair-play market,” Ms. Lamort said, sitting in her shop on Rue Benjamin Franklin one recent afternoon. “And it was sort of my fault because I spoke to someone about this collection, and that person told Lhéritier.”

Most dealers surrendered to this newcomer with the indomitable checkbook. Many took monthly retainers of 10,000 euros (about $10,800 today) for leads, like the Stendhal tip. Others earned millions selling pieces to him, in exchange for providing the most essential spring in Aristophil’s moneymaking contraption: generous appraisals.

Among the emails seized by investigators was one from Mr. Lhéritier to Jean-Claude Vrain, a fedora-wearing fixture of Paris’s rare books market. In December 2012, Mr. Lhéritier asked Mr. Vrain to appraise a manuscript by a survivor of the Titanic, Helen Churchill Candee.

In his email, Mr. Lhéritier suggested that €1.1 million sounded about right, which was roughly five times what it had cost him. A few hours later, Mr. Vrain concurred.

“I declare that I have appraised the manuscript for an insurance value of 1,100,000,” he wrote. “Certified sincere and genuine.”

Expert opinion in hand, Mr. Lhéritier could get the document insured for the new, higher sum, which lent credibility to the price he charged investors for a piece of it.

The relationship was spectacularly lucrative for Mr. Vrain. Between 2009 and 2014, according to French media reports, he sold Aristophil more than €90 million worth of rare documents, including letters from Jean Cocteau and the manuscript of a Flaubert novella.

He was indicted along with Mr. Lhéritier for “gang fraud.” In an email, he declined to comment, beyond saying that his dealings with Aristophil were no different than with his other customers and were above reproach.

Mr. Lhéritier disputed that there was anything wrong with his arrangement with Mr. Vrain. He executed tens of thousands of similar transactions, and had similar email exchanges, with other dealers.

“Where’s the problem?” Mr. Lhéritier asked during the December interview. Markups are part of every business, he said, and who knows the real value of a document as rare as, say, a shopping list penned by Beethoven, circa 1817?

Mr. Lhéritier’s assumption when the company began was that the rare books market was undervalued because it was small and drowsy. He would jolt it awake with salesmanship, and by pitching it to a huge pool of middle-class investors.

“The will of Aristophil,” the company said in one of its brochures, “is to allow everyone to hold one day in their hands one of these fragments of history.”

Transforming the rare books market would take all of Mr. Lhéritier’s considerable gifts for razzle-dazzle. Money poured in and promptly went back out. It was spent on the museum, which welcomed more than 20,000 visitors a year. Then there was $40 million for a mansion in Saint-Germain-des-Prés, which was turned into an office with space for small exhibitions. It opened in 2013 with a gala where guards in Napoleonic-era garb played a drum roll as each guest arrived on the red carpet.

Mr. Lhéritier constantly gave out awards — trophies, checks, sales bonuses, anything to attract a crowd and lend Aristophil an aura of opulence and gravity. At conventions in Monaco, audiences sipped champagne and were serenaded by an orchestra as he handed plaques to employees, authors, journalists and experts, including Mr. Vrain, who was hailed for his “scientific” approach.

He created the Grand Prize of the Institute of Letters and Manuscripts and bestowed it, along with a check for €10,000, on people such as Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, the former president of France. (The money was donated to a nonprofit, Mr. Giscard told the media.)

He donated nearly $3 million to the National Library of France. Reporters were paid $1,100 to moderate panels about rare books. To sell shares in the documents, Aristophil relied on a long-established, nationwide network of about 800 professional financial advisers. Top performers won a trip on the Orient Express or a cruise on the Queen Elizabeth 2.

The largess helped spread word of the extraordinary sums Aristophil was paying for rare books. And that caused Europeans to rummage through their libraries and sell off their treasures. Typically, rare manuscripts trickle into the market as they are inherited or discovered. Now, there was a flood. One expert estimates that a century’s worth of items were coaxed out of private hands in 15 years.

Mr. Lhéritier benefited from a cycle: The publicity pried loose more documents, and the documents brought in more investors, which generated more publicity, which brought in more documents, and so on.

His profile might have peaked with his appearance in July 2013 on the cover of Winner magazine. It was the sort of publication that accepted a roughly $140,000 check from Mr. Lhéritier to plaster the image on news kiosks around Paris.

“I’ll show you the articles before Nov. 18, 2014, the day the police raided Aristophil,” Mr. Lhéritier said during the December interview. “Figaro, Le Monde, Nice Matin — they all loved me and my museum. Everything was fine.”

By then, in fact, there was trouble.

Several doyens of the rare books realm had become alarmed after looking into Mr. Lhéritier’s background. Following service in the army, then a stint in the diamond business that ended in bankruptcy, he had figured in a 1990s scandal in Monaco involving commemorative stamps, which Mr. Lhéritier resold as investments at a fantastic markup. About 1,200 people, mostly French, parted with more than $50 million before the stamps proved worthless.

Mr. Lhéritier was eventually given a suspended prison sentence. In a preview of his current defense, he blamed the French government for conspiring against him.

The Monaco story only confirmed the suspicions of Frédéric Castaing, who owns the oldest rare manuscripts shop in Paris, on Rue Jacob in the heart of city’s antiques neighborhood. From the day the two met, years ago at a restaurant on the Champs-Élysées, he considered Mr. Lhéritier something akin to an invasive species.

“He explained Aristophil and that the autographs market is old, closed and snooty,” Mr. Castaing said in his shop one evening, under a photograph of Proust. “It was the last segment of the art market where there was no speculation, and he was going to change that.”

Mr. Lhéritier brought along figures that he considered proof that manuscripts by Baudelaire appreciated at 15 percent a year, Victor Hugo at 12 percent and so on.

“I told him, ‘I can’t work with you,’” Mr. Castaing remembered. “And after that, I criticized him nonstop, as publicly as I could.”

To Mr. Castaing, the business model for Aristophil was preposterous. No Baudelaire letter is worth the same as any other, and none appreciate in the large, predictable steps that Mr. Lhéritier promised, he said.

Further, the market for rare books is about 2,500 people worldwide, by Mr. Castaing’s estimation. That’s because paintings and manuscripts are inherently different objects, with very different markets. A painting can be hung on a wall, where it can be viewed and appreciated by its owner, and signal discernment and wealth to everyone else. A letter from Mark Twain should be kept in a protective sheath somewhere dark. What’s more, artists can be rediscovered and their reputations can rise with exhibitions, enhancing the value of their work. Authors, especially long-deceased ones, rarely go in or out of vogue in ways that drastically affect the value of their letters and documents.

To Mr. Castaing, there was another flaw with Mr. Lhéritier’s plan. He could sell to investors, but who would later buy from them?

The ostensible answer was Aristophil. The contract signed by Mr. Leconte, the retiree who lost more than $250,000, and others included a seemingly straightforward line in the “Agreement to Sell” section. As he read it, the document stated that the company would buy back shares after five years, at a price that “may in no case be lower than the purchase price increased by 8.95 percent per year.”

Mr. Lhéritier said in the December interview that it was absurd to believe Aristophil would promise those kinds of returns. “If we did, we would have had 18 million clients, not 18,000,” he said. The contract stipulated that Aristophil might buy back shares at a premium, he said, but was not obliged to do so.

The facts here are not black and white, and there were dozens of variations of Aristophil contracts. A consumer group, Que Choisir, studied one and described it in 2011 as “frighteningly ambiguous.” Its report ended with an ominous prediction: “The last investors to enter the dance are likely to be losers.”

Few knew that by 2012, the final dance seemed imminent. Mr. Lhéritier said in the interview that articles like Que Choisir’s had reduced the number of new clients and that his cash flow was dangerously low.

He needed a miracle — and he got the secular version of just that. On Nov. 13, 2012, Mr. Lhéritier hit the lottery. Specifically, he hit the EuroMillions, which paid him €169 million, then worth about $215 million.

“When I looked at my computer, I checked the numbers 10 times,” Mr. Lhéritier recalled. “I couldn’t believe it.”

Neither could the police. They studied the ticket and concluded, to their astonishment, that the win was legitimate. Mr. Lhéritier had been playing the same numbers for years — the birth dates of children and grandchildren — and the ticket was bought at the tobacco shop where he had dropped thousands of euros on lottery tickets in the past.

He would eventually give millions to his family, keep millions for himself and pump about $40 million into Aristophil.

To Mr. Lhéritier, this is proof that Aristophil was no Ponzi scheme, because only a lunatic would sink money into a doomed venture. Not so, say critics. If Mr. Lhéritier hadn’t infused his company with cash, Aristophil would have collapsed and he would have instantly gone from eminence to pariah.

Regardless, winning the lottery wasn’t enough. Far more cash was needed to cover the hundreds of millions of dollars that aging investors had begun to demand.

“By 2014, these people wanted to sell their assets,” said Philippe Julien, an attorney with PDGB, a law firm leading one of several class-action suits on behalf of investors. “Aristophil was unable to say yes. The company didn’t say no, either. It just was unable to pay, or it would pay a little and say it would pay more in a few years.”

Mr. Lhéritier scrambled. Through an intermediary, he tried to sell his Einstein documents to a list of notables, including the Aga Khan, Harvey Weinstein and Steven Spielberg, for $32 million. “They all require second opinions,” the intermediary wrote to Mr. Lhéritier. The potential buyers passed.

Prodded by angry investors, the French authorities shut down Aristophil on a Tuesday morning in November 2014. Mr. Lhéritier’s home was searched, too.

A criminal investigation is underway to determine whether Mr. Lhéritier’s indictment will continue into prosecution, and if there is a trial the proceedings could stretch on for years. In the meantime, he spends most days at home, in search of proof that well-placed civil servants targeted him for destruction.

At present, Mr. Lhéritier has more hunches than hard evidence. He says he angered influential players in the investment world, and regulators in their thrall, because Aristophil was a disrupter. He also says he embarrassed government officials by giving them color photocopies of letters by de Gaulle after they demanded the originals displayed in his museum.

The implication is that Aristophil, and its many investors, were ruined out of pique. This sounds entirely plausible to Mr. Lhéritier’s publicist, Christophe Reille, who said the French government’s behavior toward his client “falls somewhere between the Soviet Union and the Republic of North Korea.”

He also said class resentment, a perennial bugbear of France, had played a major role. “The government was offended that he is a modest man,” Mr. Reille said. “He didn’t have the right education, the right credentials.”

The Aristophil auctions continue apace, with eight more planned in the coming year. While many experts anticipate severely depressed prices, others see opportunity. They include the indicted Jean-Claude Vrain, who provided many on-demand estimates for Mr. Lhéritier and earned a fortune as the market soared to its pre-calamity heights.

Now, because nothing in his legal situation prevents it, he is discovering bargains in the wreckage. He has been spending liberally at Aristophil auctions, starting with the first in 2015, when he spent nearly $2 million. His haul included a copy of “Madame Bovary” dedicated by Flaubert to Victor Hugo. In an article published by L’Express the next day, he sounded pleased by the $400,000 price.

“I think it’s not very expensive,” he said.

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