Were investors conned into buying rare manuscripts?

The manuscript of 'The 120 Days of Sodom' written by the Marquis de Sade, photographed in 2014Image copyright

About 18,000 people in France are believed to have been defrauded in one of the biggest ever arts-market scams. They bought shares in rare manuscripts and letters to a value of nearly 1bn euros, before the company behind it was shut down by regulators. Now the victims of Aristophil want to know what is left of their investment.

Up until a few months ago you could visit a place called the Museum of Letters and Documents, on the Boulevard Saint-Germain in the heart of literary Paris.

Even today, Wikipedia English says the museum – with its stock of 130,000 rare manuscripts – is open for business.

It isn’t. What was once the haunt of dreamy youth is now a branch of Bang and Olufsen. The documents are in a warehouse in Seine-Saint-Denis.

The closure followed the disgrace of a businessman and enthusiast, who over a decade turned the fusty world of French manuscripts and autographs on its head.

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Gerard Lheritier holding the “political testament” of Louis XVI, in 2009

Gerard Lheritier was – for a time – a visionary. He saw in the world of rare letters and documents a market that was seriously undervalued.

As his lawyer Francis Triboulet puts it, “Lheritier spotted before anyone else did that people adore old documents – anything that lets them come into physical contact with their heroes of the past.”

But today his fortune has been confiscated, his company put into liquidation, while across the country thousands of angry investors are baying for his blood.

The son of a plumber from eastern France, Lheritier was a self-taught outsider in a field dominated by a handful of Paris dealers. About 15 years ago, he enlisted the help of one of these experts, and began buying.

One of his early acquisitions was a document called the Einstein-Musso – 54 pages of calculations on the theory of general relativity – which he bought for just over 500,000 euros.

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Lheritier’s next step was to become his business model. He divided the Einstein-Musso into 400 “shares”, which he sold on to investors.

The fact that the total value now amounted to 12m euros – 24 times the amount he had spent – was easily explicable: the market was growing, the investors were in early, and everyone wanted a piece of Einstein.

Over the years Gerard Lheritier developed his system to become king of the market. His presence at a sale set prices soaring.

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His company Aristophil employed hundreds of sales staff across France, giving “independent” advice about the huge returns awaiting those willing to make the jump.

Aude Nehring’s father was one of those who fell for the lure. Looking for an investment for his children, he was approached by a broker and placed his 35,000 euros in part-shares in seven Aristophil documents.

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