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Daily Archives: April 6, 2008

Paris pawnshop opens vault to fine wines

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by Emma Charlton*

Forget your grandmother's wedding ring: France's oldest pawnbroker will now take in a vintage claret dug out of the family cellar as security for a tide-you-over loan.
A household institution, the Paris Credit Municipal was set up in 1777 to offer the poor an alternative to usurers and their punitive interest rates, on a model created by a Franciscan monk in 15th-century Italy.
Run on a not-for-profit basis in partnership with the city, it decided last month to open its doors to wine as collateral for short-term loans, as well as the usual artworks, watches, jewels or antiques.
"People started arriving within days, we never expected so many. It's a very promising start," said a spokesman for the pawnshop, Vincent Vogt, who said it had taken in 400 bottles since March 17, from Paris and the provinces alike.
One Parisian doctor turned up with a dozen bottles of 1985 Romanee Conti, at 5,000 euros (8,000 dollars) a pop, and a 1961 Chateau Petrus, one of the world's most prized vintages.
He left an hour later with a 20,000 euro loan.
At the other end of the scale, a pensioner came with a shopping bag full of 60-euro Pomerol from the Bordeaux region, walking out with 200 euros.
Located in the heart of the historic Marais district, the Credit Municipal acquired its nickname — "Ma Tante" or "Auntie" — when a son of the 19th century monarch Louis Philippe pawned his watch and chain to cover a gambling debt, telling his mother he left it "chez ma tante".
It currently has custody of some 10 million items, including France's second largest collection of artworks after the Louvre, both pawned works and thousands of others deposited for safe storage.
"People think a pawnshop is something dusty out of an Emile Zola novel — but it's still very much a reality," said Vogt.
"We offer subsistence loans, as little as 30 euros, for people who are really on the edge. But we also have great French fortunes who will come here to deposit a master's artwork".
The Paris pawnshop was well-placed to branch out into wine: its vast headquarters, the size of three soccer pitches, come complete with a prised 18th-century wine cellar.
With thick stone walls, 80-percent humidity, and vault-like security conditions, its cellar can accommodate up to 90,000 bottles in "optimum conditions," Vogt said.
"People had asked us in the past if we took wine. For one thing, pawning a bottle of wine from a cellar is more discreet than unhooking a picture from the wall, or removing a sofa from a living room."
But the idea really took off in 2006, after Paris city hall asked the pawnshop to auction 5,000 bottles of world class wines, collected under former mayor Jacques Chirac, in a sale that raised nearly a million euros.
"We realised there was an incredible interest among foreign buyers. And that wine was really something that could be traded," said Vogt. "Wine has become a safe investment, on a par with stocks. And it can only improve with time."
He said France's 19 other Credit Municipal branches — including in winegrowing areas Bordeaux or Bourgogne — were looking at Paris with "a sparkle in their eye," but that few would have the wine storage capacity to offer the same service.
Credit Municipal employs an outside expert to value the wine — it only takes bottles worth 60 euros or above — and will instantly issue a 12-month renewable loan for half of its worth.
Ninety-three percent of all borrowers repay their loans in full and reclaim their possessions, the broker says. In the remaining cases, the goods are sold off to pay off the debt at auctions prized by antique and art dealers.
"We hold two or three themed auctions per week, for paintings, silverware, watches. So logically, we will also be holding wine sales," said Vogt.
So the advice to the wine lover is: watch out for the bargain basement Mouton Rothschild.


Oldest gold artefact unearthed in Americas is 4,000 years old

Archaeologists have unearthed a nearly 4,000-year-old necklace which shows that gold was being used as a status symbol in the Americas much earlier than previously thought, according to a study released last week.
The necklace is the oldest gold artefact discovered in the Americas to date and was found in the remains of a burial site in the Lake Titicaca basin of southern Peru.
It shows that the complex social developments which lead to status displays were present while hunter-gatherers were just beginning to settle into permanent villages.
"This was a big surprise to us," said lead author Mark Aldenderfer of the University of Arizona, Tucson.
"Most people… tend to suggest that the only way you can have the creation and elaboration of even simple objects like this is when you've got sedentary village agriculturalists who generate an agricultural surplus which gets used to support prestige-building activities."
But the presence of the gold necklace in the grave of a hunter-gather whose tribe lived in a village for much, but not all of the year, shows how soon status symbols come into play in settled societies.
"This is a time when social roles are changing and there are a variety of new ones as well as competition for them, so the gold reflects some of that prestige and status competition during this time of change," Aldenderfer said in a telephone interview.
"It doesn't mean that the people who owned the gold were leaders in the sense of power over, these were people who had higher status and presumably higher wealth who were actively competing to use their status and prestige to form a basis for leadership."
The discovery shows the pathway to where the society would have persistent, permanent leaders who rule for generations, he said.
The necklace was made with nine gold beads which had been hammered into thick cylinders interspersed with 11 circular beads of a coarse green stone. The central gold bead had a turquoise stone attached through a perforation in the centre.
The beads varied in length from 11.5 to 29 millimetres and weight from 1.5 to 5.2 grams. The edges of the beads showed distinctive hammer marks and were folded over rather than cut.
"The finding also supports the hypothesis of an early advent of gold working in relatively simple societies," Aldenderfer wrote in the study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
However, it is unlikely that the necklace was made on site. It's likely that the owner either travelled to find the gold or else had enough wealth to trade with a traveller who had the gold, he said.