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It's the Louvre of pawnshops

Even Rodin turned to Paris' 'auntie' when he was down on his luck.

May 12, 2008|Geraldine Baum | Times Staff Writer

PARIS — In between the trendy decoration shops and smart cafes in the Marais quarter, there is old "auntie."

That would be Credit Municipal of Paris, the pawnshop owned and operated by this city since 1777 where Auguste Rodin put up pieces of his sculptures to pay for new tools and Claude Monet had a friend buy back his late wife's beloved medallion so she could wear it in her casket. It got that cozy nickname after a young French royal hocked his watch to cover a gambling debt and told his mother he'd left it at the home of his aunt.

For centuries, that home has been an undistinguished Right Bank stone building with a sprawling underground maze of rooms that now hold 76,000 boxes of jewelry, racks of furs and countless odds and ends as well as a collection of art second in size only to the Louvre.

"We are like Ft. Knox," said Bernard Candiard, director-general of Credit Municipal, which takes any object worth between 60 ($93) and 2 million euros ($3 million) as security against a 12-month loan equal to half its value. The loans must be paid back with 8% to 12% interest or can be renewed indefinitely for a fee.

Every day, hundreds of Parisians take a number and wait on plastic benches to hand over jewels, furs and family heirlooms to raise cash.

They are mostly this city's forever-broke. Yet a few have known prosperity, like the gentleman who recently dropped off a 1986 Romanee-Conti, an admired Burgundy worth nearly $8,000.

Because in recent months, auntie has begun accepting wine.

"People can now exchange liquidity -- for liquidity," joked Candiard, who initiated the policy to take wine as collateral.

Candiard, who has been in his job less than two years, came up with the idea after he learned that one client was running a business out of auntie's public cellar. Because wine often gains value, and unlike a silver tea set or beloved Renoir is not obviously missed when it's pawned, Candiard cleared out the client's stash hoping to attract many more with wine to wager. (In auntie's cellar, the humidity is an opportune 80% and the temperature 53 degrees.)

Within a few weeks, the waiting room was crowded with other "gentlemen" cradling wooden wine crates alongside the many ladies lugging furs and plastic sacks filled with watches and bracelets. Behind discreet partitions awaited a team of experts who use tiny tools to pry open watches and guides to assess vintage claret.

During different periods, Parisians went to auntie with different types of treasures. In the 19th century, people pawned their mattresses in the morning to buy potatoes -- and retrieved them before nightfall. The finest craftsmen forfeited their tools when they were unemployed, and writers such as Emile Zola, Paul Verlaine and Victor Hugo all at some point made desperate visits to auntie. Hugo's "Les Miserables" even includes a bride who gave up her trousseau for 60 francs from auntie.

In modern times, Credit Municipal and 18 other pawnbrokers run by city halls around France are viewed as barometers of uncertain times. Business in Paris, for example, has picked up by 35% over the last few years.

Candiard likens his waiting area to an emergency room -- without the blood. Fatiha Chakki was in the other day turning over several pieces of gold jewelry to raise money to pay a $925 power bill. "Coming here is the last solution," said Chakki, who is 35 and an unemployed bartender. "Nobody else would give me money."

J. Dancik, a teacher, was in renewing a contract on a contemporary painting and a piece of Art Nouveau furniture he had pawned a few years ago to pay his son's camp tuition. "I needed money quickly without being asked too many questions," he said. A few years ago, a woman showed up to reclaim two necklaces and a medallion that she'd dropped off -- 54 years, four months and 16 days earlier. She paid $185 to buy them back.

Although government-run pawnshops may seem strange to Americans who are used to private shops, these public operations exist around the world in countries such as Spain, Mexico and Indonesia. Like the others, Paris' auntie doesn't rely on taxpayer money, but operates on what is collected in fees, interest and other banking business and from regular auctions.

Recently, the mayor of Paris asked auntie to run an auction selling off 5,000 bottles of wine collected by a predecessor, former French President Jacques Chirac. It raised more than $1.5 million.

Leaving auntie's cool wine closet, where a 1982 Chateau Haut-Brion with a yellow plastic tag around the neck was waiting to be stored, it seemed a convenient place to leave a Bordeaux -- when you're in the red.

--

geraldine.baum@latimes.com

Special correspondent Pauline Ranger contributed to this report.

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