I’ve long had a fascination with the Savoy, the Rhone-alps region in France and it’s not just their fondue or the skiing or the canals snaking through medieval Annecy. It comes from those Savoyards themselves. Years ago reading Les Miserables by Victor Hugo I remember Jean Valjean, poor himself, giving coins to a young Savoyard boy and that struck me since Jean was destitute and on the lam for stealing bread. The implication being I think that the Savoyards were in worse condition than even he. But a few years ago I read more about the Savoyards in Graham Robb’s book the Discovery of France. It’s an eccentric wonderful book. He writes of the young Savoyard boys in the 19th century who cornered the Paris market of the chimney sweeping profession. At that time when one mentioned a chimney sweep it signified a young Savoyard boy who was small enough to climb up inside the chimneys and do the dirty work.
19th century Paris had its Auvergnat water carriers, Lyonnais porters, and Savoyard chimney sweeps. Lord Munster in his 1824 Paris journal describes it like this “the chimneysweeps of Paris are generally Savoyards, little boys who come from the mountains, and for thirty francs a year, which is sent back to their parents, live on the charity of the servants of the houses where they are employed, it being a laudable custom for the cook to give them bread and broken victuals.”
Savoyard immigrants were lamplighters, messengers, shoe shiners, decrotteurs who scraped mud off people's boots but most often chimney sweeps and were synonomous with poverty. They lived in poor districts near Port Saint Denis in rooms blackened with smoke sleeping on strawbeds.
Prior to the Revolution the Savoyards, despite speaking French kept their own identity, migrated to Paris for work. The children organized in self-regulating communites to keep them out of trouble with the authorities. According to one account 'the oldest having the right to watch over the youngest...they have seen to inflict justice on one of their number who had been thieving.”
Like many old trades the chimney sweeps invoked patron saints. But instead of the usual 'one' saint the Savoyards invoked six saints of sweepdom St. Anthony, St Eligius, St John the Baptist, St Francis of Assisi, St Florian and St Nicolas
The painter Watteau was drawn to the Savoyards, these poor people from the mountainous region, who in winter months wandered through France, turning their hands to all kinds of work, selling curiosities or entertaining audiences with trained animals. Like this painting Savoyard with a Marmot. The alpine marmot could be taught to dance. The marmot in its box was such a familiar object carried by itinerant Savoyards, that even today the word “marmotte” still persists in modern French, to describe a commercial traveller’s sample box.
The migrant Savoyard was a common sight in 18th century France and the plight of the Savoyards appeared in the books of Balzac and Hugo. Their migration supposedly went back to antiquity, to the days of Julius Caesar. But by the eighteenth century thanks to the difficulty of farming in alpine conditions, more glaciers in the Chamonix valley, and high taxes imposed on the poor between one half and two-thirds of all Savoyard males were either permanently or temporarily absent from their homeland.
Savoyard children as young as eight were rented out by their parents in conditions little worse than slavery. They trekked to Paris on a journey that took weeks, joined other little Savoyards proud to distinguish themselves from street urchins, who begged and stole. The Savoyards were organized and had a profession. Chimneysweep.
But going back to the self-regulating organization, it’s still alive today and practiced by Savoyards but they’ve come out of the chimneys. Savoyards work at the Hôtel Drouot, France’s oldest, largest, most storied and most profitable auction site, a frenetic three-story bazaar of marvels and junk: Picassos and Basquiats, stamps and used handbags, dusty carpets, couches, clattering glassware. Its walls upholstered in ratty red velour, its 16 salesrooms teeming and noisy. Drouot figures among this nation’s most beloved monuments to the material. The famous institution where every client rich or poor looks for a bargain.There’s a fever in those auction rooms stuffed with everything from Renoirs, to tiny Napoleonic lead soldiers, strings of pearls and teddy bears.
Junk and masterpieces, side by side, thrown together in what appears a gigantic flea market only sales takes place by auction with strict rules. And control. Lots of money. And with lots of money comes theft.
The job of the Savoyards for the past 150 years has been to collect items for sale, store them and carry them into the auction room. Portering duties at Parisian auction houses have been monopolized by Savoyards officially recognized by the Emperor Napoleon III in 1860 when Savoy officially became part of France.
The auction house does not employ them directly but pays their organization a percentage of its profits which the organization shares among the porters. Each of the 110 jobs is numbered and passed on within the same families or sometimes, more recently, sold to other Savoyards for up to €50,000.
Each porter wears a black uniform, with a red collar bearing his official number. The "Savoyards" or "collets rouges" (red collars) while at work are never known by their real names but by nicknames such as "Corbeau" or "Narcisse".
However over the years, the “collets rouges” have also acquired permission to buy and sell items on commission or in their own right.
But now eight of them are under arrest. Formally accused of "organised theft" and belonging to a "criminal gang".
Evidently for years, the authorities largely ignored the whispers of swindles, scams, and Savoy employees on the take. But in December, the French police exposed what is said to be an extensive art-trafficking ring within the auction house. People were arrested on suspicion of coordinated thefts, most of them were “commissionaires,” members of Drouot’s clannish Savoyard transporters; since then, four more have reportedly confessed to stealing. The police have recovered more than a hundred missing objects and artworks, including several Chagall lithographs and this Courbet.
Police searched through 125 large containers used by the Savoyards at a warehouse on the eastern edges of Paris. They contained scores of objets d'art, pieces of furniture or ancient books whose origins the owners of the containers could not explain. Searches at the homes of the accused men have discovered a gouache painting by Marc Chagall and a set of diamonds.
Parisian art dealers say that the illicit activities of some Drouot porters have been an open secret for years. So long as the thefts remained modest, dealers were reluctant to complain because they were fearful of upsetting the porters. "If you complained, there would be reprisals, like objects broken in transit," one dealer told Le Figaro.
Another common practice, dealers said, was for porters to steal parts of an object in transit– such as the doors of an antique wardrobe – and then buy the "incomplete" article for a low price. Several months later, the antique would be re-assembled and sold on for a big profit. "Until now, these were small, occasional thefts," one dealer said. "Not a Courbet or a Chagall."
Druout denies any wrongdoing, but is limiting its 158-year relationship with the commissionaires.
“You have to know the dirty tricks, there are dirty tricks,” said Claude Pariset, 68, an antiques dealer from Champagne and a Drouot devotee for near 50 years.”
“These are things that go on, that have always gone on,” said a justice official. Despite 6,000 daily visitors and 800,000 items sold each year, only three official theft complaints have been lodged against the auction house in the past decade. But it seems all of them don’t fall under the gavel of an auctioneer
Detectives are trying to work out just how widespread the Savoyard thefts were. "There was no gang leader," one investigator told Le Parisien. "This was a cooperative of crime.”
Well, they survived sticking together for this long and of course, there still are a few chimneys left in Paris.
Cara - Tuesday