Esquire (Singapore) - - Style -

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.”

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