Down, but Not Out, in Paris

There are no private pawn houses to be found on the squares, boulevards or back streets of Paris. After a centuries-long battle, a Napoleonic law was passed in 1804 to ban pawnbrokers — some of them charging interest rates as high as 120 percent. Today the state still holds a monopoly on pawnbroking through an institution known as the Crédit Municipal — interest rates 4 to 9 percent.

The Crédit Municipal de Paris on the Rue des Francs Bourgeois was crowded when I made a lunchtime visit a few days ago, but there wasn’t much chat — just a gentle background hum, with some people nodding off in their seats, waiting to pawn their goods.

When you arrive at reception they give you a numbered ticket, then you are summoned to a counter to submit the item, receive an estimate of its value on a slip of paper, then enter another room to receive the payout — roughly half of the item’s worth in cash.

The process takes around two hours, according to the institution’s director, Bernard Candiard, who says that the economic crisis has swelled the number of people using the facility by about 57 percent in the last three years.

The state pawnbroker serves the needy but not the destitute; when it comes down to it they have nothing to pawn. Members of the upper middle class are no stranger to the place. Objects worth thousands of euros or as little as €30 can be pawned. But if they are not recovered within a year they are liable to be auctioned off to recoup the debt. This only happens in about 10 percent of the cases, says Mr. Candiard. But if sale of the item makes a profit, the balance, after commission and administrative costs, go to the original owner.

The auction room, lined with seats facing the auctioneer’s table under a neon ceiling, is a far cry from Sotheby’s. But Stéphane Pons, the auctioneer at the proceedings I attended the next morning, carried on with panache in the best 19th-century tradition. Clad in a suit of violent yellow and sporting a thick mustache, he wields his gavel with deft flicks of the wrist, imposing discipline on the crowd with a quick, choleric, tongue-in-cheek vigor.

“If you’re going to scratch your head, do it now,” he warns the newcomers. “It’ll be more expensive in a moment.”

Most of the bidders seem to be habitués — professionals seeking bargains to sell at a mark-up in their boutiques. They signal their bids in a well-oiled semaphore of nods and hand movements, a language dizzying to the uninitiated. Each lot is dispatched in the blink of an eye, and woe betide anyone who brakes the frenetic pace.

“Item No. 1: a gold bracelet. Start the bidding at €1,000. ... We have a thousand. ... ten ... twenty ... thirty at the back. Ten .. one hundred ... One thousand, one hundred and seventy. ... Twenty to my right. All finished? Sold for one thousand, one hundred and ninety to the lady with the interesting hat!”

Mr. Pons is not a salaried employee but is paid on commission, an independent professional under a system overseen by the state. In France, you need to jump through many academic hoops to qualify for the job. Under the French system the auctioneer also assumes financial responsibility for any overvaluations: a watch pawned for €500 which goes for €300 at auction, means he owes the house €200.

Neither buyers nor sellers are inclined to identify themselves. Cameras are prohibited and security guards are omnipresent. One anonymous buyer admitted that good deals are now hard to come by. Watches and jewelry are the most common items to be pawned these days. Electronic goods, rapidly devalued by new technology, are refused.

Back in the old days mattresses were hard currency — a last resort for the desperate, and one of the few possessions bailiffs were not (and are still not today under French law) allowed to confiscate from your home. An inventory taken in 1868 counted 15,000 mattresses. The Crédit Municipal still has a 19th century mattress-delousing machine, a giant cylindrical contraption the pumped high pressure steam to kill any bedbugs.

Famous clients include Victor Hugo, Émile Zola, and the Prince de Joinville, a 19th-century gambler who once covered his debts by pawning a watch, a gift from his mother. When she asked why he wasn’t wearing it, he deftly replied, “It’s at my aunt’s.” This expression has become a French euphemism for a visit to the Crédit Municipal.

By Chris Spence, a tour guide in Paris.

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