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An unspecified quantity of drawings, paintings, watches and objets d’art were impounded, led by a Gustave Courbet seascape, Paysage Marin Sous Ciel d’Orage, stolen in 2004 and worth an estimated 900,000 euros.

As more than 30 officers descended on Drouot, another police raid took place at Drouot’s storage warehouse in Bagnolet, in the eastern suburbs of Paris. Over 100 containers were sealed as potential evidence.

Eight of those taken into custody were members of Drouot’s handling and transportation department, the Union des Commissionnaires, better known as the Cols Rouges on account of their red-collared uniforms.

Drouot auctioneer Eric Caudron was also taken into custody, suspected of being an accomplice to the sale of stolen goods. He denies knowing the provenance of the items concerned.

The swoop followed an investigation by the Office Central Chargé de la Lutte contre le Vol et les Trafics d’Art (the police brigade for fighting art theft and trafficking), launched last May.

The Cols Rouges have long been suspected of pilfering during estate inventories and transportation – with wine, jewellery and objets d’art, usually of modest value, their prime targets. Drouot authorities are thought to have routinely turned a blind eye.

This is the first time a large-scale criminal investigation has been launched at the Drouot.

The Cols Rouges is a closed-shop organisation composed of 110 men exclusively from the Alpine region of Savoie, who have enjoyed a monopoly of Drouot warehousing since Savoie was annexed to France in 1860.

Each of the 110 has a numbered uniform and an equal stake in the company. Recruitment is by personal contact (and often family relationship) only.

Drouot President Georges Delettrez has refused to comment on the swoop, beyond asserting that “suitable measures with regard to our service-providers will be taken once the results of the investigation are known”. That may not be any time soon. Police say their enquiries “have only just begun”.

By Simon Hewitt