Fea­ture

Esquire (Singapore) - - Style -

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

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