old ones and make new purchases so that the operation would appear sound.
Financial investigators referred the case to the French public prosecutor’s office, which ordered the raids in November 2014. Four months later, an investigating judge indicted Lhéritier, according to multiple news accounts, on charges of fraud, money laundering, deceptive marketing practices and breach of trust. (Lhéritier’s lawyer would not comment on the specific charges.) He now faces up to 10 years in prison.
Authorities also reportedly indicted three Aristophil associates: Vrain, an accountant and one of the company’s directors. (Vrain would not comment on any charges.) Employees continued to operate the museum and The 120 Days of Sodom exhibit for several months without pay, even though the collections were under government seal.
The courts tied up Lhéritier’s lottery winnings, his properties (although he’s still allowed to live in his USD5 million villa), his three racehorses and his two hot-air balloons. The only reason Lhéritier has any money at all is thanks to his son, Fabrice, to whom he’d bestowed a portion of his EuroMillions windfall.
Out on a SGD3.4 million bail, Lhéritier now spends his days preparing for his criminal trial, a date for which has not yet been set. In his timber-ceilinged villa, which features indoor and outdoor pools and a dramatic view of the sea, the divorcé shows me photos of his children and grandchildren among the elegant antiques and paintings in gilded frames. In the bathroom, an electronic toilet boasts a heated seat and a self-opening lid—the ultimate throne for the son and grandson of a plumber.
It’s a charmed existence, but a far cry from the bustle of Aristophil headquarters and the buzz of Paris auction houses. “The guy’s objective goal in life is not money; it is respectability,” says his lawyer, Francis Triboulet. “But now everyone has abandoned him.” Yet Lhéritier remains confident. “It might take two or three years, but they aren’t going to get me,” he says. When I ask how many years in prison he thinks he’ll receive, he makes a circle with his fingers: zero.
According to Triboulet, Lhéritier cannot be convicted of fraud because Aristophil never guaranteed it would buy back investors’ manuscript shares. Its contracts simply stated that investors could offer to sell back their shares to the company after five years. As for the 40 percent returns shareholders expected from their investments? The overzealous promises of independent brokers, not company policy. Anne Lamort, the former president of France’s booksellers syndicate, has long suspected Lhéritier was up to something, but concedes that the government’s case against him isn’t particularly strong. “I think it is very difficult to prove fraud or the exaggerated manuscript estimates,” she says. “There is no objective measure and no witnesses.”
If Aristophil was a hoax, Triboulet says, why would Lhéritier have invested millions of his lottery winnings into the company? “It’s the first time in my life that the main victim of a system which is alleged to be a fraud is considered the main fraudster of the business.” But rumours swirl about that lottery jackpot. Some believe Lhéritier bought the winning ticket from somebody else to legitimise his spending—an old Whitey Bulger trick. (Lhéritier vehemently denies that there was anything improper about his lottery win.)
“I brought to the general public, to the working class and others, all of the artists of the School of Paris and the great celebrities of the humanities,” he says. Powerful interests in the Ministries of Culture, Finance and Justice were out to destroy him, he claims, because he threatened the cultural status quo and dared to flaunt his success. “In order to live happily in France, you have to live hidden,” he says.
For his part, Hugues de Sade largely agrees. “He is someone who was able to find his niche and exploit it in a very intelligent way,” Hugues says of Lhéritier. “But in France, we always criticise people who succeed. We like to gain money, but we don’t like to talk about it.”
There’s something appealing about Lhéritier’s tale, the way this outsider upended the exclusive world of letters through pluck, innovation and good fortune. But then I remember all the people who believed in this man. With interest, Aristophil owes approximately SGD2 billion to its nearly 18,000 investors. That includes Geoffroy de La Taille, an actor and father of five who along with his wife invested USD230,000 in the company, figuring the earnings would help his family through the lean times between roles. And Robert Cipollina, a motorcycle racer turned small-business owner in Avignon who planned to use the returns on his USD45,000 investment to buy a new car. He changed his mind in 2014, deciding the profits would go to his children as he lay dying from leukaemia. “I would prefer to have my dad back, but I also don’t want them to have his money,” Aude Nehring, Cipollina’s daughter, told me angrily when I visited her and her family in Germany. “What is going on here? Do we have a chance to get the money back?”
Selling off Lhéritier’s assets wouldn’t come close to making his investors whole. Seeking alternatives, some of the alleged victims have formed associations and filed lawsuits against ancillary businesses linked to Aristophil, like its banks and notary. For now, they have little to show for their investment save for a contract produced by a company that no longer exists.
Lhéritier doesn’t spend much time pondering Aristophil’s investors. While he expresses sympathy for their troubles, he maintains that he is not to blame. “I would tell the clients to address themselves to the authors of this destruction, not to me,” he says. “There is only one thing to say to the clients and I have said this since the beginning: they have to be patient and confident. Their collections still exist. They haven’t lost anything.”
AFTER BEING HIDDEN AWAY for almost three years, The 120 Days of Sodom emerged from its vault late last year. In a second-floor gallery in the modernist Parisian citadel that houses the Drouot auction house, the scroll was rolled up and placed on a pedestal, surrounded by other treasures confiscated from Aristophil. Aguttes, the Parisian auction company that won the contract to store and sell the company’s holdings, announced last November that the liquidation of the collection would start on 20 December with a blockbuster sale.
Then, on 18 December, the French government declared The 120 Days of Sodom a national treasure. When the auction begins on a cold and dreary afternoon two days later in one of Drouot’s largest halls, the auctioneer steps up to the podium and explains to the packed crowd that the designation means the manuscript