Judge and Jury: Is the value of antique experts’ opinions going, going, gone? - The sale of fake Georgian chairs at Sotheby’s has cast doubt on how much an ’expert’ opinion can be trusted, says Judith O’Leary, opera

Reputations are hard-won and easily lost. Whether the revelations about the sale by the world’s top auction house, Sotheby’s, of forged ’Georgian’ chairs for a world record pounds 1.3 million will have a lasting impact, only time will tell.

Reputations are hard-won and easily lost. Whether the revelations

about the sale by the world’s top auction house, Sotheby’s, of forged

’Georgian’ chairs for a world record pounds 1.3 million will have a

lasting impact, only time will tell.



The chairs were catalogued by Sotheby’s as having being made in 1760 and

originating from St Giles’s House in Wimborne, Dorset - seat of the Earl

of Shaftesbury. Just a couple of slight problems - the chairs were 230

years younger and it’s highly unlikely that an Earl of Shaftesbury’s

seat ever touched them. While Del Boy might have been happy shifting the

chairs for a couple of hundred, Sotheby’s is in a different league - but

only because of its reputation.



Publicly, it seems that the auction house took appropriate action -

accepting early retirement from one expert and resignation from another,

starting an inquiry and reassuring us that there was no ’wrong-doing’.

It also returned the buyer’s cash and is now turning its guns on the

vendors.



Given that valuations are down to the experts, that these experts are no

longer ’in the mix’ must take some of the heat off the Sotheby’s

brand.



The issue becomes dangerous if the sentiment from one observer that

’buyers have always taken chances’ gains momentum. An isolated, clearly

identified, controlled and rectified problem at one auction house is one

thing. Quite another is the potential damage caused to the sector if

anyone who has ever bought anything at auction were to doubt the

provenance of a piece because it was verified by ’auction house experts’

in whom buyers are losing confidence. This, coupled with the warning

from the editor of Art Review that ’fakes are more widespread than any

collectors believe’, is a bit worrying for those with the odd pounds

800,000 to invest.



Buying from big auction houses will always provide some comfort for the

buyer and - while caveat emptor still applies - Sotheby’s needs to get a

few good sales under its belt without any further scandal. The brand is

big enough to ride the storm.



Like the current boom in house prices, where investment potential seems

to be driving the deal - rather than the need for somewhere to live;

whacking great prices for furniture may just serve to remind the

non-philistines that chairs were originally designed for sitting in.



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