JOINVILLE, France — The soft-spoken mayor of this ancient village on the Marne River put his hand on my arm as we shivered in the late winter cold in front of a narrow house. Snow dusted the rooftops, and hardly a soul was in sight on the cobblestone street.

“Are you ready for this?” asked the mayor, Bertrand Ollivier, his expression pained.

“It’s violent,” he said.

The mayor’s aide for urban planning, Anthony Koenig, his hands freezing, fumbled for the key to the 16th-century house and fitted it into the front door lock; the metal scraped in the gray silence.

He pushed it open: The violence was visible.

The floorboards were gone; the room once used as a kitchen was bare of tiles. Underfoot, there was just gravel and earth. The once wood-paneled walls had been stripped down to the brick and, in some places, exposed to the elements as a cold wind blew through.

There was no ceiling, only the building’s structural beams overhead. 

Anthony Koenig, who is in charge of urban planning for Joinville, France, showed one of the abandoned and pillaged houses in the village.
Anthony Koenig, who is in charge of urban planning for Joinville, France, showed one of the abandoned and pillaged houses in the village. © Pierre Terdjman for The New York Times


Throughout the French countryside, especially in less visited rural areas of eastern and central France, some homes have fallen victim to speculators who strip their architectural treasures and sell them, often abroad, leaving once graceful historic structures little more than empty shells behind gaily painted facades. In other cases, the owners themselves sell the architectural elements to raise some cash.

Joinville’s losses are anything but an exception. The sales are for the most part legal, but the phenomenon is an element in the gradual depopulation of many of France’s villages, and what some fear is an ebbing away of French traditions and culture. The issue of French identity and heritage is at the heart of the presidential campaign, and it is among the issues that have helped propel the right-wing populist Marine Le Pen to the status of a front-runner. Voting begins April 23.

“The market for this art-architecture in France is millions, tens of millions of euros each year,” said Emmanuel Étienne, deputy director of historic monuments and protected spaces for the French Ministry of Culture and Communication.

Of the thousands of export licenses sought for such goods annually, only about 10 are denied, Mr. Étienne said. Those sales halted by the government are for items considered part of France’s national heritage and have often been taken from protected sites.

Most of the pillaged architectural elements taken from villages such as Joinville are relatively mundane and have only limited value compared with the art and architecture of France’s grandest homes, which often include unique pieces.


Simon de Monicault, the head of furniture for the Christie’s auction house in Paris, said: “The market is quite important in France. Most people who want to buy something antique will focus in France, more than in any other country in Europe.”

Christie’s deals only in exceptional pieces, but local antiques dealers and salvage companies often comb the French countryside looking for choice elements; they knock on doors, advertise in local papers.

Although France has strict laws to protect national patrimony, few local officials make use of them. In part, that is because restoration and preservation would put them at odds with powerful local developers or hinder modernizing projects intended to improve economic activity.