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February 1, 2014

Libération's Vincent Noce Reports on Belgian Heiress' Claim Against Sotheby's for Alleged Fraud Regarding Sale of Stamp Collection

Libération: Among the missing items,
the original design of the envelope
 "BelgianArctic Expedition" of 1957. (Photo CD)
by Isabel Abislaiman

Last December, the newspaper Libération revealed that French authorities are conducting an investigation into a claim brought by a Belgian heiress against Sotheby’s for alleged fraud (Vincent Noce, Libération, Sotheby's et la philatéliste estampée, December 26, 2013). According to Libération, the woman inherited a significant stamp collection from her father in 2009 and contacted Sotheby’s who put her in touch with Sotheby's France Vice President, Alain Renner. According to the claim, Noce reports, Renner, accompanied by expert Grégory Russel, visited the potential client and offered to put the collection up for auction at Sotheby's in Paris, estimating the revenue from sale at auction at 600,000 Euros, which piqued the lady’s interest.

The claimant alleges, according to Noce, that a month later, the two men came back and took the entire collection with them, without doing an inventory. According to the woman, they hurriedly fetched boxes from a grocery store and said it would be best for them to send the inventory once they returned to Paris. Mr. Renner sent her a certificate of deposit describing the lot in a general manner "48 stamp albums Belgium 1892-1970" and "a lot of philately bulk" estimated "500,000 to 750,000 Euros." A sale date was set "after thorough assessment, for December 10, 2009 in Paris.”

According to the claim, Noce reports, time passed and there was no sale because it had never been put on Sotheby’s auction calendar. After further inquiry, Mr. Renner informed the lady that Sotheby's did not have the collection in its custody, but that Mr. Russel was holding possession of the collection, all this allegedly without the lady's knowledge or consent. Likewise, the owner allegedly discovered that the collection had toured to a philatelic exhibit in Monaco and ended up at an auctioneer’s in Toulouse, Marc Labarbe, with whom Mr. Renner was allegedly associated. Turns out, Sotheby's does not auction stamps in Paris, Noce reports.

About a year and a half after the collection had been taken from the lady’s house without an inventory, Mr. Russel allegedly had the lady sign an inventory for the sale to take place in Toulouse. The sale yielded less than expected. Disappointed, the lady discussed it with her son, a philatelist, who asserts rare pieces had disappeared; while on some pages stamps were repositioned to hide the absence of missing stamps.

Sotheby’s position is that the lady had agreed to sell the collection with the auctioneer in Toulouse, and signed all the papers knowingly. The owner claims at all times she relied on Sotheby’s reputation and that by entrusting the collection to Mr. Russel, a third party, Sotheby’s willfully or negligently jeopardized the integrity of her collection. In another case, Mr. Russel is implied in the diversion of a stamp collection belonging to an elderly couple in eastern France. According to Vincent Noce's article published in Libération, Gregory Russel is being investigated for embezzlement, abuse of weakness and concealment in both cases.

Ms. Abislaiman is an attorney and Personal Property Appraiser.