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The court refused to believe Hampshire bricklayer Stephen Hayball’s claim that he had no idea the painting was not by Felix Nussbaum after a leading expert on the painter gave evidence that he had written to him informing him of the fact.

Hayball, of Whalesmead Road, Bishopstoke, failed to notify auctioneers Andrew Smith & Son of his doubts over the authenticity of the continental landscape prior to its sale to Anthony Astill for £8200 in December 2000, Southampton County Court heard.

Andrew Smith have already settled out of court with Mr Astill and had launched the county court private prosecution against Hayball to recover their loss.

Hayball, who buys and sells paintings as a hobby, claimed he had “no idea” that the painting he had bought in 1995 for just £200 could be worth more than £20,000.

“I bought the painting from a man who said he needed to raise money as he was moving house,” he said. “He told me he had bought it from a German lady who had bought it for her grandson many years ago.”

Hayball said he had decided to sell the painting at auction to raise a few hundred pounds to buy one of his four sons a new guitar for Christmas.
He told the court: “I’m a bricklayer not an art critic. I just wanted to get a nice present for my son. I was curious to find out whether the painting was genuine so phoned up Sotheby’s and they gave me an address for the Felix Nussbaum Haus in Osnabruck, Germany.

“I wrote to them in December 1995 but am still awaiting a reply to this day. How could I know the painting was worth many thousands of pounds?”

Hayball said he had received £7146 for the painting which had all been spent on a family holiday to Tenerife and Christmas presents.

Appearing for Andrew Smith, James Leabetter said that Dr Karl Kastor, curator at the Felix Nussbaum Haus in Osnabruck, had written a reply to Mr Hayball stating that they were in “no doubt” that the painting in question was not an authentic Nussbaum.

“I put it to you that you knew full well the value of this painting and decided to go to a small auction firm as you knew that a larger one would do more to check the work’s provenance,” Mr Leabetter told Hayball.

“It beggars belief that you took the trouble to write a letter questioning the authenticity of the painting and not make any attempts over six and a half years to chase it up.

“The fact that an art museum had been named after Nussbaum would alert most people to the fact that he was no ordinary artist.”

Mr Astill, a seasoned art collector, had contacted Winchester-based Andrew Smith & Son after European art contacts questioned the authenticity of his purchase.

According to art experts, paintings by Felix Nussbaum, who died at Auschwitz during the Second World War, fetch anything from £20,000-£150,000.

On ordering Hayball to pay £9895 damages plus £1032 in storage costs for the painting within 28 days, District Judge John Ainsworth said: “Mr Hayball owed a duty of care as vendor to ensure that the goods offered for auction were authentic. He failed to do that.”