Paris (AFP) - A Paris court on Tuesday jailed 35 former porters from the prestigious Drouot auction house for stealing precious antiques, jewels and artworks in an insider racket thought to date back decades.
The defendants, who transported and stored objects destined for sale by Drouot, were found guilty of helping themselves to treasures including diamonds and a painting by Marc Chagall.
They were sentenced to up to three years in jail, with 18 months suspended, and fined 60,000 euros ($67,000).
Three auctioneers were also convicted in the scandal that shook the French art world, with the three receiving suspended sentences of up to 18 months plus fines of 25,000 euros.
The lavish lifestyles of some of the porters had long been a source of suspicion. One drove a Porsche 911 and the latest BMW cabriolet, while another reportedly bought a Paris bar with his spoils.
The convicted men were among 43 porters and six auctioneers who were tried in March on charges of gang-related theft, conspiracy and handling stolen goods.
Defence lawyer Lef Forster complained that the court had failed to take into consideration the "social complexity of the phenomenon", arguing that the practice of "salvaging objects" was widely tolerated.
- Secretive group -
Investigators alleged institutionalised theft by the porters, known as "Les Savoyards" as all members of the secretive group came from the French Alpine region of Savoie.
They are also known as the "Cols Rouges" after the red trim on the collars of their black uniforms, paired with pristine white gloves.
The porters had monopolised the transport and handling of valuables for Drouot, one of the world's oldest auction houses, since 1860.
The court on Tuesday ordered the dissolution of their union, whose membership was tightly controlled and limited to 110.
Much of the pilfering occurred while the porters set about emptying the homes of wealthy people after their deaths, taking items that were not inventoried.
Two pieces by leading Art Deco designer Eileen Gray went missing in July 2006, appearing three months later on the Drouot auction block where they sold for a combined total of one million euros.
The porters claimed they had no idea the objects -- a pedestal table and a dressing table -- could fetch such a fortune, with one saying they were to have been "hauled away by the rag-and-bone man".
The investigation was launched in 2009 after an anonymous tip led investigators to a painting by the 19th-century artist Gustave Courbet that disappeared while being transported in 2003.
Raids uncovered a mountain of treasures, including precious jewels and antique furniture, that had gone missing.
- 'Stealing from the dead' -
The same fate befell some stage costumes of the great French mime Marcel Marceau, who died in 2007 leaving a tax debt of several million euros to his daughters.
Testifying at the trial in March, the daughters lambasted what they called a "free-for-all" behind the scenes at Drouot.
They were among several dozen victims of the alleged scam who sought damages in the trial, but the court did not award any on Tuesday.
Drouot was quick to dissociate itself from the scandal, dropping the porters in 2010 and becoming a civil plaintiff in the trial.
"These thefts committed on such a large scale have shamed the institution," the auction house's lawyer Karim Beylouni said in March.
According to the prosecution, the practice -- known as "la yape" which means "theft" in Savoie slang -- was endemic and profits were shared equally among the porters.
Each newcomer "bought" the membership of an outgoing porter, with an initiation process that involved stealing something and sharing the proceeds with the others.
Defence lawyer Thibaut Rouffiac acknowledged during the trial that "there were thefts, without a doubt," but said: "Just because there were thefts and excesses doesn't mean they all stole."
Another, Leon Lef Forster, questioned whether "fraudulent intent" could be proven when the employees salvaged "abandoned things".
Some of the porters allegedly defended the practice by saying they were merely "stealing from the dead".