Lhéritier had laboured for years to reach such heights. As a working-class boy from Meuse, in northeastern France, he dreamed of living by the sea in Nice. After an unexceptional military career, he settled into a modest family life and a job at an insurance company in Strasbourg. He launched a company on the side, investing in diamonds, but it went bankrupt in 1984. He married and had two children, then divorced in 1987.
On a trip to Paris, Lhéritier visited a stamp shop in hopes of finding a gift for his son. Inside, he spotted a small envelope bearing the words “Par ballon monté” that, he learned, had been sealed during the 1870 Prussian siege of Paris and flown over the invading armies via balloon—one of the first letters ever sent by air. It cost 150 francs (less than USD20). He felt like a “gold digger who discovers a vein”, Lhéritier later wrote. He started Valeur Philatéliques, trading in rare Monegasque stamps. French authorities charged Lhéritier with fraud for allegedly inflating their value; in March 1996, he spent two weeks in prison, though he was later acquitted. According to Intimate Corruption, the 2006 book Lhéritier wrote about “the Monaco stamp affair”, he was the victim of a government conspiracy.
Lhéritier was already on to his next venture. In 1990, he founded a third company called Aristophil, fusing the words for art, history and philology. The operation remained relatively small until 2002, when he acquired a series of letters written by Albert Einstein discussing the theory of relativity. Lhéritier paid the auction house Christie’s USD560,000 for the lot, a fraction of what he figured a serious collector would be willing to spend. But finding such a buyer would take time.
Instead, Lhéritier devised an alternative business model. He divided the ownership of the letters into shares—a common practice in real estate but largely unknown in the rarefied world of antiquarian books and manuscripts. That once out-ofreach market would now be open to schoolteachers, clergymen, shopkeepers and anyone else who wanted to make a tax-exempt investment in the country’s literary heritage. For as little as a few hundred dollars, they could become part owners of this historychanging correspondence—or if they preferred, letters by Cocteau or Matisse. The shareholders would have the option to sell their stake back to the company after five years. In the interim, Aristophil would insure and safeguard the letters while promoting them through exhibitions in its newly opened Museum of Letters and Manuscripts, thus boosting their value. Independent brokers promised returns of 40 percent. Soon the mere involvement of Aristophil at an auction would send bids skyward. It was the start of a bull market in letters, drawing out manuscripts that had been mouldering in château libraries for generations.
France’s antiquarian book and manuscript shops are concentrated in the Paris neighbourhood of St-Germain-desPrés. Down cobblestone alleyways, behind doors marked Livres Anciens and Autographes, historical letters and signed first editions were long bought and sold by those who shared a love of the written word, and deals were sealed with a handshake. Now these treasured works were being packaged and traded, owned by people who rarely saw their acquisitions or ran their fingertips across the paper. They had become investment vehicles like any other and the old guard was up in arms.
From his stylishly appointed shop a few blocks from Aristophil’s headquarters, Frédéric Castaing watched Lhéritier’s rise with disgust. The grandson of a celebrated antique dealer and the son of the proprietor of Maison Charavay, the oldest and perhaps most respected manuscript shop in the world, Castaing was the biggest name in the letters market. Until Lhéritier came along.
“Their sales arrangements were an absolute vulgarity,” Castaing, his hair swept up in a striking pompadour, said of Aristophil when I visited his shop in November 2016. “Baudelaire plus 12 percent, Victor Hugo plus 12 percent.” He had a special hatred for Jean-Claude Vrain, a book dealer whom Lhéritier had tapped to help price his offerings. Some say the discord began with a dispute over politics. Others say Vrain’s flamboyant ways simply represented everything Castaing despised. In 2005, before ever meeting Lhéritier, Castaing published a crime novel, Rouge Cendres ( Red Ashes), about a shady attempt to corner the Parisian letters market, with one of the main villains, Augustin, modelled on Vrain. “In the [auctions], he never sat down like you and me, in a silence of good taste,” he wrote of Augustin. “No, he’d stay on his feet at the back of the room, he’d speak harshly at everyone and he’d bid like one orders a café crème.”
Castaing, who frequently spoke out against Lhéritier, was hired to handle a major sale by the esteemed Hôtel Drouot in 2012. The auction was an abject failure. Fortynine of the 65 lots went unsold. Lhéritier, it turned out, had told his associates not to bid. Castaing later found copies of the auction catalogue on his shop’s doorstep every morning for a week—the belles lettres equivalent of a horse’s head in his sheets.
The year before, the French government had declared that a series of letters written by former president Charles de Gaulle that had been purchased by Aristophil and divvied up among investors in fact belonged to the state. When staff under Aurélie Filippetti, the newly appointed minister of culture, reviewed the letters turned over by Aristophil, they discovered that Lhéritier had given them photocopies. Once confronted, he relinquished the originals, but Filippetti would not forget the affront.
Around the same time, Belgian authorities launched a fraud and money-laundering investigation into Aristophil in Brussels, where the company had opened a second Museum of Letters and Manuscripts. And in December 2012, the Autorité des Marchés Financiers, France’s SEC, issued a warning about investing in unregulated markets like letters and manuscripts. A year later, reports emerged that for the first time, Aristophil declined to buy back some of its investors’ manuscripts at the expected rate of return. (Lhéritier’s lawyer says there was never a guarantee to repurchase.)
Yet if Lhéritier was worried, he didn’t show it. The opening gala at his new headquarters was like a thumb in the eye of his enemies. He had won USD210 million in Europe’s EuroMillions lottery the previous November—the biggest jackpot in the country’s history—
Perhaps, Lhéritier muses, the scroll really is cursed:
“Maybe if I hadn’t touched the manuscript, Aristophil would
still be here.”