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
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
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.