Mr. Lhéritier seems an unlikely figure to spark this mania. He was raised in a small village in the east of France, the son of a plumber, and he wrote “self-taught” in the diplomas section of his Who’s Who entry. Other than some handsome volumes he published to hype his collection, there aren’t a lot of books in his home.
Which is a villa, valued at $6 million, with a swimming pool, a panoramic view of the coast and, rather incongruously, a number of chickens roaming the backyard. In an expansive living room crammed with photographs and art, a huge TV played a loop of burning logs, right next to a log-less, ornate hearth.
“It’s a good time to save money,” Mr. Lhéritier said with a shrug.
None of it belongs to him anymore. All of his assets have been confiscated by the authorities. A judge has allowed him to continue living here as his case is adjudicated.
But he seemed every bit the lord of the manor, wearing an electric-blue sport jacket over a Hitchcockian frame. With surprising serenity and flashes of wit, he argued that he was the victim of petty French officials, who he believes were embarrassed by and resented his success. The logic of his narrative could be hard to follow, and the facts maddeningly difficult to pin down. He lectured, backtracked, dissembled and fibbed. (In a postinterview email, he claimed to be 82 years old, for some reason.)
As Mr. Lhéritier thumbed endlessly through receipts, catalogs and lists, his show-and-tell lacked neither vigor nor conviction.
“One day, if you want to be a crook, ask me about it,” he said at one point, smiling. “Because it’s a lot of work.”
Seventeen years ago, Mr. Lhéritier crashed through the doors of the genteel market for manuscripts with all the subtlety of a famished wild boar. That Einstein collection was the first he divvied into virtual shares. Soon, representatives of Aristophil were rampaging through auctions around Europe and the United States, outbidding everyone for anything of quality.
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