Sounds easy doesn't it? But it took more than three years for our furniture
to move from La
Bellanderie to Santa Cruz.
This used to be a nice, solid inner-spring sofabed. It cost about
$1,000 in New York City in 1983, and had lasted several house moves,
including one international move, but not the Tison treatment. It's
here at the top of the page because it really was strongly built
piece of furniture, and yet its back was broken. An accident?
First and most importantly, Tison S.A.the
furniture moving company based in Coignières (78), west of Paris, which we
picked to do the move for us, was crooked. In trying to con us in 1997,
Tison succeeded in depriving our children of all their toys and most of
their clothes for over three years. Its President, the chief con artist, was
Bourlé. There are several examples of Arnauld's con artistry on
After realizing that we were being conned, and to help us recover our
furniture, we called in "La Chambre
Syndicale du Déménagement," a French self-regulatory organization.
As one of this association's jobs is to protect moving company customers,
and as our furniture was being held for ransom by Arnauld Bourlé in Tison's
warehouse to blackmail us into paying amounts that should never have been
due, we asked them for help. We told them basically what is on this page,
explaining Bourlé's various cons to them. Associations like these typically
know who their bad apples are, and know what the basic cons are. It is their
job to know. The Chambre Syndicale did absolutely nothing for us.
This was just a TV table. But it wasn't any more!! Unloading the
furniture when it finally arrived had its heart-breaking moments.
Our final fallback, after all was delivered with the inevitable damage of
three years of being moved around, was SIACI, a French insurer of goods in
transit, now called SIACI
Saint Honoré. We had paid substantial premiums to SIACI (to the
tune of about $1,500!) to insure our furniture in transit. They weaseled and
schemed and stalled and finally did not pay us one red cent in compensation,
despite all the damage we had suffered in diverse ways.
* * *
Here's more detail. We were trying to do a lot in a short time. Our wedding
was on May 24th, and we were scheduled to fly to New York on June 23rd. As
always happens when you're self-employed, work picks up when you need more
time for personal matters (no complaints there: it pays the bills), and I
barely had enough time to do everything.
The major collective task was packing and arranging to move our furniture to
California. I had accumulated mine from my my own home (what Sunshine left
behind when she moved out), from my mother's house after she died and from
Great Aunt Alice. Marie-Hélène had accumulated hers from her mother after she
died, from her apartment shared with Pierre, and from her Tante Lucette.
The famous Tison estimate for a maximum of 64 cubic meters of
furniture, "in the opinion of Arnauld Bourlé."
In short, we had a lot of furniture by this time, in a big house. We didn't
yet have a home to move it to, but were counting on having all the furniture
delivered to the Port of Oakland and having it collected by a local moving
and storage company once we'd found a place. A bit messy, but not too bad,
all things considered. The cost risk we thought was manageable, the
warehousing in Oakland or Santa Cruz.
The overall con evolved slowly, inexorably. With the gift of hindsight, it
was all so clear. Sitting in our bare and empty house in Santa Cruz, looking
at the documents and trying to get our furniture back from Tison's
warehouse, where it was being held hostage, it became clearer and clearer.
This bonnetière, one of Marie-Hélène's proudest pieces of furniture,
Arnauld Bourlé sweet talked Marie-Hélène and
gave her an estimate for loading a container and shipping it to Oakland. I
was in Paris working the day that he visited to make his estimate. It was a
little lower in price than the other estimate that we obtained,
although not much. We had used the other company before, and
had been satisfied. But expenses were mounting up, and price won the day. We
paid Tison the two requested deposits.
VAT is called TVA in French. It is one of the line items on
the left in the lower box
across the page. If we had paid that almost 10,000 francs on the day that
we left, Tison would have had no duty to pay any of it to the
government. In short, Bourlé would have made another 10,000 francs
for nothing. Of course, it would have been a fraud, but not the only
one in this story.
The estimate itself read "volume of 64 cubic meters maximum in a 40 foot
container, according to Mr Bourlé's visit." Marie-Hélène, who had escorted
Bourlé around La Bellanderie, told me that he had expressed a little concern
that perhaps we had a bit more furniture than the 40 foot container would
hold. We had been planning on leaving some things in France in any event,
things like appliances that would not work on US electricity, and arranged
with Bourlé for 10 cubic meters to be shipped to Marie-Hélène's Oncle Alain
in Autun. As Bourlé had confirmed a volume of 64 cubic meters in writing, we
felt comfortable that arranging to take an additional 10 elsewhere would
cover us against any underestimate of the volume.
Then on the final day of the move (the men were in the house packing for
three days altogether), amid the insanity of trying to inventory and
complete the packing of a 4000 square foot home, Bourlé's men "discovered"
that all did not fit in the 40 foot container supplied, even when 10 cubic
meters was separated out and loaded into a separate van for delivery to
The men did not appear to be at all surprised.
This was Charlie's changing table before we left. Of course, by the
time it was delivered, over three years later, Charlie no longer
needed to be changed. We had to buy another one for Alex while we
were waiting for delivery of this one. In a way, you could say the
fact that it was broken in transit didn't matter.
We were frazzled and worried because not everything had made it into the
container, but still aware enough not to pay all of the balance. Our alarms
were going off. We paid the rest of the cost for Autun (all that left
correctly, if without the inventory that Tison was supposed to prepare), but
withheld 10,000 francs of the balance (about $1,600) pending clarification.
Two other events at the end of that frazzled day added to the number of
alarm bells ringing in our heads. First, the final invoice for the US
shipment added VAT, which was not due on a shipment to the US. If I wasn't a
business lawyer with some familiarity with VAT, I would never have known
that. As it was, I ignored the 10,000 francs (again about $1,600) in VAT when
calculating what to pay. Imagine someone less versed in the intricacies of
French taxation, confronted with an invoice at the end of an insane day of
organizing and separating and packing:
that person would likely have paid it in full. Arnauld Bourlé apparently had
several possible cons covered. If one or two failed, he had more up his
The second event completed the day. Bourlé had asked us to obtain export
documents from the appropriate government agencies and have them ready to
give to his driver when he left pulling the container. The principal
document was (and you could have guessed this!) confirmation from the local
fisc that we had paid all taxes due. The driver refused the documents, which
we had scurried around collecting, as did his men. We asked the British
Airways counter person at Heathrow Airport in London (our flights went
CDG-LHR, and LHR to JFK) to send them for us as we rushed through on our way to New
York. They did get to Tison, although Bourlé of course claimed the contrary.
Here's one of the first invoices we received after arrival in
California. Bourlé got this one to us fast! It covers only the
additional 20 foot container that Tison was insisting we would need
to pay for. $3,500.
Upon arrival in California we received faxes and registered letters billing
us for one or other (or more) of (1) the additional 20 foot container that
would be needed, said the letter, to ship the balance of the furniture for
Oakland that did not fit in the 40 foot container, (2) shipment of the
initial 40 foot container to Le Havre (where it could not be loaded onto a
vessel because of the "missing" customs documents) and back, and (3) storage
of our furniture at Tison's warehouse (where it was never supposed to go)
during the ensuing period.
The amounts being invoiced were pretty significant. We had paid 38,000 plus
francs toward the estimated 48,000 plus francs for the US move (and 5,000
francs for the move to Autun). Just the additional 20 foot container was
going to cost us an additional 21,840 francs (excluding insurance), around
$3,500. The back and forth to Le Havre of the original container was
invoiced at over 23,000 francs (almost $4,000). Another 15,000 francs (about
$2,500) covered "deposit of the container in our warehouse" and the first
two months of storage there.
That's $10,000, on top of the initial $8,000 that we had paid! Then we
started receiving regular invoices for storage, invoices that increased
Would Tison have settled in late 1997 for an amount below the aggregate of
these early invoices? Perhaps. But the amounts were just too high, it took
me nine months to find a real job in California. The balance of mum's
estate, which I had been using to cover emergencies such as this, had been
the deposit on our home. We simply didn't have the $6-7,000 that such a
settlement might have arrived at. It wasn't worth trying for.
Whoops! This was actually more serious than it looks. Several of
these dark glass doors were broken or cracked, rendering unusable
the entire (rather nice) piece of furniture of which they were a
Plus, I have to admit that I was furious and in no mind to accept this kind
of blackmail. It offended the English part of me. As we got further into the
dispute, the extent of Arnauld Bourlé's deliberate and planned cheating
became clearer, and infuriated me.
Here was the basic con. Immediately we contacted Tison, right around the
time he visited La Bellanderie to give his estimate, Bourlé asked his
shipping agent in Le Havre for a quote for 85 cubic meters of furniture to
the Port of Oakland. Unbeknownst to us, the agent apparently gave him that
In early July after we arrived in California, Bourlé explained in a fax that
his written estimate to us of 64 cubic meters, the amount that he said fit
in a 40 foot container, resulted from Marie-Hélène's request to him to limit
what we shipped to the US to 64 cubic meters to fit in that container. She
had not wanted to pay the excess for the balance, his letter explained. If
that excess was the $3,500 he claimed in his simultaneous invoices, that
might have been logical. In light of the final amount that we paid for the
excess, and why it was so much lower at the end, her alleged request made no sense. But
I'm jumping the gun!
Here is that furniture at Le Tahu in its prime. We were never able
to use it this way again after the move. The glass doors could not
be repaired or replaced. One of the larger cupboards is used for
storage in the garage at home.
Even then, this basic con did not appear to be a very good one. The language
that Bourlé used in his estimate made it clear that it was his estimate
("according to Mr. Bourlé's visit"), and did not mention any limit on the
volume made at the request of his client. He obviously should have made such
a mention, along the lines of "total volume = 85 cubic meters; volume for
shipment = 64 cubic meters, as requested by client."
Otherwise, what was to protect his company against any claim from us based
on his own blatant error in the written estimate that we received? Of
course, he couldn't have written enough to protect his company at the time,
because that would have alerted us in advance to the con. The language that
he actually used was proof of the con for anyone bright enough to see it.
There are other common sense arguments that revealed the con. What woman who
is emigrating will ask that one quarter of her personal effects be left in
limbo, even to save a few thousand bucks? Wouldn't she have obtained an
estimate for storing or shipping this quarter elsewhere? Well, guess what,
she did arrange for shipment elsewhere of more than she believed would be
left out of the container. (By way of a sidebar, most of what was shipped to
Autun, apart from the French appliances, was my stuff that Marie-Hélène
didn't like: this was normal feminine behavior!) She didn't arrange for more
to be shipped to Autun or put into storage because we had no idea of the
Check this out! The final Tison invoice (March 2000) before the
court entered its judgment: over $25,000!! On top of the $8,000 that
we'd already paid back in 1997!
But ultimately common sense didn't matter. The mere fact of preparing his
con by having his shipping agent give him an estimate for 85 cubic meters
caused the court to believe Bourlé, on that topic at least. This was not the
smartest court in the world. Neither was it the fastest. How long did it
take this Versailles court to order Tison to deliver our furniture? Almost
We had tried for a
more urgent decision from the Court, seeking an order early on that the
furniture be moved here promptly pending resolution of the dispute. But the
Court had found questions of fact to be resolved, and thus refused to order
the furniture to be sent until full exposure of these facts. So we waited
for three years.
But I shouldn't badmouth the court. It did smell a fairly hefty rat here,
the diminutive and dapper M. Arnauld Bourlé! That was Marie-Hélène’s
description: I never met the man. The court found that he had lacked
diligence in obtaining the required customs documents from us. I'll say:
having his own people refuse them certainly lacks something!
Accordingly, the court held each of us and them half responsible for what
happened and ordered us to pay Tison an additional $1,500 for delivery of
the 64 cubic meters. You could hear the sigh of relief all over Santa Cruz!
Of a final invoice of $25,000, we only had to pay $1,500. If that's how you
split the difference, I'm all for it!
My dad brought five of these old English contracts home from
his office (they were century-old company contracts) while I was at law
school. Nice touch! Mum framed
them so that both front and back were visible. Not a cheap framing
job. Fortunately, only one of the five was broken by Tison.
Which brings us to the final con, or should I say the final element of the
first con. Throughout the process, Tison claimed payment for an additional
20 foot container to move to the US the balance of our stuff that would not
fit in the initial 40 foot container. We discovered soon after our arrival
in Santa Cruz that there was such a thing as a "high top" container, and we
later ascertained that it holds about 76 cubic meters. Doing the math in our
case, assuming as Tison claimed after the event that there were 85 cubic
meters of furniture in our home, after 10 moved to Autun that left 75. Did
we need a second container? No, all should have fitted in one 40 foot "high
One of Marie-Hélène's beautiful heirloom mirrors, a little the worse
But we didn't know for sure until after the court's judgment, which left the
treatment of the remaining 11 cubic meters to the parties to work out. Tison,
by now affiliated with UTS, a more reputable group of moving companies, proposed
that we paid 4,000 francs, less than $700, to include all of our furniture
in one high top container. That was explicit in their settlement proposal:
we would only need to pay $600 more if the remaining 11 cubic meters was
shipped with the original 64. This offer was not made by Bourlé personally,
by the way.
You guessed it: all arrived in the fall of 2000 in one high top container!
The whole circus had been completely unnecessary, uniquely designed to con
us. Even if 85 cubic meters had been the initial estimate, then after taking
out the stuff for Autun, a high top container could have taken everything as
arranged to the Port of Oakland in June 1997.
To summarize the more serious Arnauld Bourlé cons: (1) there was never any
need for a second container, even if Bourlé had told us as well as his
shipping agent about the 85 cubic meters, just a higher container of
marginally more expensive cost, and (2) refusing or losing the export
documents, which required (a) shipment back and forth of the container to Le
Havre and (b) deposit of the container at the warehouse and ensuing storage
charges. I doubt that shipment to Le Havre ever happened, in retrospect,
because the driver refused export documents (and no driver leaves for a port
without export documents) and because such a shipment would have required
Tison to pay third party costs, costs which it might never obtain from us
and never did in fact obtain from us. My guess is that the container went
straight from La Bellanderie to Tison's warehouse, and that the whole Le
Havre story was contrived to bolster the additional amounts that Bourlé
claimed from us. A reminder of those amounts: for (1) about $3,500; for
(2)(a) about $4,000 and for (2)(b), about $2,500.
* * *
Here is the first page of the insurance company's expert's report on
the damage the shipment suffered.
As it was, when the container finally arrived it was holiday time at our house!
There was just so much stuff. We'd been living for so long with rented
furniture, cheap things that we'd bought to tide us over until our furniture
arrived and even other people's cast-offs: we felt rich and royal as we
unpacked out own things, which are themselves far from rich and royal.
It took days to move the furniture inside, weeks to empty all the myriad
boxes. There were things that we'd forgotten, and things we didn't want to
remember. All of the children's clothes had been outgrown, of course, and
their toys were no longer age-appropriate. But there was a ton of
everything. I was thrilled to recover my cranky old bicycle and my old LPs
and musicassettes. We all found things that felt like old friends. Music,
books, posters, rugs, you name it. It was such a treat that I would plan to
empty another box that evening or the coming weekend, just for the sake of
it. Furnishing our home, finally making it feel properly lived in, went on for months.
Every cloud has a silver lining. Marie-Hélène made a trip alone to
Paris in February 2000 to help our lawyer (he had been unwell) at the
court hearing. She was able to meet up with Faby, Maeve and Fiona at the airport,
one day before Faby's third daughter, Leah, was born.
It had been over three years. We had left a little food in the wardrobe
boxes, not perishable, but with a view to recovering it when it arrived,
in a few months. Strains of green stuff had been generated in some of the
packages, which we tried not to examine as we jettisoned them!
were my suits, which had all shrunk a couple of sizes despite being 100%
wool. This we attributed to dampness in the warehouse where their wardrobe
box had been stored. I certainly
hadn't put on any weight over those years, despite having given up smoking
in January 1998!
The furniture moving was (along with our two-year separation
from Nick and Tom) the bad part of moving
to the US. We quickly found a lovely
home on a ridge in the redwoods outside Santa
Cruz, a lovely school for the children, and I found a very rewarding job where
I could relearn my field in the US. Not so quickly, but soon enough.
* * *
One of the children's favorite toys that didn't make it through the
ordeal: the ping-pong table.
Stories like this one always seem to have a sorry footnote. On many
occasions, like this one, that sorry footnote involves an insurance company
acting in bad faith.
After the furniture was delivered, we had to deal with the damage. Not
surprisingly, after having been packed and unpacked twice (from the smaller
container to Tison’s warehouse, and from Tison’s warehouse to the high top
container), there was some breakage. The
insurance company's own experts visited us to survey and assess the damage,
and by Christmas 2000 had it all listed. How much damage did the insurance
company's own experts identify? Between $17,000 and $25,000. And that did
not include the missing items, which we had a nearly impossible time
remembering in the absence of a complete inventory. Did I mention that Tison's men did not complete their inventory as they loaded? You could have
guessed that too, right?!
There were odd things missing, a box of tools, a box of videocassettes, a
box of crockery, that sort of thing. I'm tempted to describe it as normal
wastage over three years in a warehouse.
The one thing that
really upset me was the videocassettes. Mum had recorded the Beatles'
Anthology when it played for the first time on British television in several
weekly installments in 1995, the year before she died. The recordings
weren't great, and there were one or two episodes missing, but obviously
they meant a lot to me. Even the replacement cost of these lost items was
not included in the insurance company expert's report.
Of course, the report also did not include all the money
we had been obliged to spend outfitting the entire family and our
six-bedroom home for the whole time that our furniture was withheld. Think
how much that must have cost.
Christmas in a house with no furniture! This was our first year
there, 1997. The house stayed bare, uncluttered, through September
SIACI, the insurance company, waffled and stalled and negotiated and asked
for more information, estimates to repair what was damaged, that sort of
thing. But they seemed in their obtuse bureaucratic way to be approaching a
settlement, and that kept our guard down. Finally, when we started getting
impatient and wrote yet another demand letter, we discovered that if we
didn't sue the insurer before the first anniversary of delivery, it was too
late. It was too late already: SIACI had successfully waffled and stalled
for a year, and now were in the clear.
The two participants in this story who are really and truly the scum of this
earth, as the story itself proves, are M. Arnauld Bourlé, who takes the cake
for the sheer diversity of his con artistry, and SIACI. Watch out for both
of them if you ever move furniture in France!