Public pawnbroker keeps Parisians' secrets safe

Thu Apr 23, 2009 8:41pm EDT
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By Sophie Hardach

PARIS (Reuters) - From Napoleon III's mistress to cash-strapped modern-day bankers, Parisians have for centuries stored their jewels and secrets in a discreet building not far from the Seine: the public pawnbroker.

Set up in the 17th century in response to usurious moneylenders, the non-profit Credit Municipal has a new task -- helping Parisians weather the economic crisis with traditional loans and cutting-edge financial services.

In the ornate rooms where Auguste Rodin once pawned a hand from one of his sculptures to raise cash, immigrant mothers with toddlers queue to pledge their dowry gold or secure a low-cost loan.

Not all clients are poor. Aristocrats from the elegant 16th arrondissement regularly turn up with heirlooms.

"We are a bit like the emergency room in a hospital," Director Bernard Candiard told Reuters in the labyrinthine headquarters in the medieval Marais district.

"Most of our clients are from a modest background, but there are also ladies in fur coats who are tightening the purse strings a bit."

In 2008, client numbers rose by 30 percent to more than 500 a day. This year, several bankers quietly pawned some paintings, using the loans to pay their taxes.

Credit Municipal last year also started accepting more unusual collateral, such as fine wine and photographic art. Clients can borrow between 50 and 70 percent of the value.   Continued...

<p>An expert looks at a necklace for a pledge valuation at the Credit Municipal, known as the "Mont-de-Piete" (the public pawnbroker), in Paris April 22, 2009. REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer</p>