The Eye

Stolen National Treasures From France’s Presidential Palace Turn Up on eBay

France’s President François Hollande in his office at the presidential Élysée Palace in 2012.

Photo by Bertrand Langlouis/AFP/Getty Images

The décor of the ornate French presidential palace is a history-laden exercise in high style, furnished with artworks, furniture, and other national treasures from the state’s impressive holdings. But a few weeks ago the French government was embarrassed by a story that French taxpayer money went to repairing shredded armrests and a urine-soaked sofa sullied by former President Nicolas Sarkozy’s dogs. And a few weeks ago, an annual budget report from France’s Court of Auditors revealed that 32 works of art and 625 pieces of furniture were missing from the Élysée Palace and other presidential residences.

In a new incident, first reported in the print version of French daily Le Figaro on Friday and online by others, objects from France’s legendary Sèvres porcelain factory, a historic royal entity now run by the state, have been discovered on eBay by the French interior ministry. According to Le Figaro, the objects are believed to have been taken a half-century ago by “a military attaché from the 1950s who had a habit of giving them away as gifts.”

In France, artworks are lent to the presidential residence (and presidential hunting lodge retreat La Lanterne in Versailles, as well as former official retreat turned national monument Fort de Brégançon on the French Riviera) by France’s museums. Furniture and textiles are provided courtesy of the centuries-old Mobilier National, the national repository of some 80,000 pieces of furniture and textiles that was originally established to furnish royal residences on demand and is now devoted to preserving France’s wealth of interior design–related patrimony.

While the government keeps an inventory of pieces, it’s only checked every five years. The most recent figures are from 2007, and in typically swift French bureaucratic fashion, numbers for 2012 won’t be ready until 2014, so officials say that there is no way to reliably trace when the objects disappeared.

According to ArtNet, socialist MP René Dosière told Le Figaro: “At the Élysée, the management of what goes in and out is fairly improvised. When an inventory is done, the Mobilier National doesn’t have the same figures as the Élysée, which in turns doesn’t have the same figures as the inventory commission. In short, it’s a mess.”

Taking souvenirs from the presidential residence is a long-standing tradition in France. But the fact that pieces have not discreetly disappeared into private collections—instead making their way onto eBay—might mean that the French government will step up its role in preventing theft and recovering stolen objects in a more transparent manner. It isn’t yet clear what happened to the eBay listings or how the French government plans to recover them. But in the meantime, France’s culture ministry has come up with the brilliant idea that it is now mandatory that missing items be reported in an online database they’re calling Sherlock.