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Lawrence Perovetz, a 53-year-old dealer from Hampstead, was given a two-year suspended jail sentence and a £25,000 fine last year when he was caught handling items taken from the Earl of Chichester’s manor on Salisbury Plain.

Although given two years to pay the fine, the appeal court concluded this month that, given Perovetz’s ruined reputation and perilous financial state, it would be wrong in principle to maintain the fine with his wife being gravely ill and still receiving treatment. The court overturned the fine in its entirety.

Lord Justice Keene said that Perovetz had been a man of previous good character and that the fine of £25,000 handed out by the judge at his original trial at Salisbury Crown Court was unreasonable. “Given what [the judge] knew of the defendant’s financial circumstances, in imposing a fine and certainly one of this magnitude, he should have set a fine within his ability to pay,” he said.

“If he had done so, we think it is likely that he would not have imposed a fine of this magnitude – and indeed would not have imposed one at all.

“We are therefore of the view that it would be wrong in principle for there to be a fine at all and in those circumstances we quash it,” concluded Lord Justice Keene.

The level of the fine set at the Crown Court was, in part, due to the fact that Perovetz had pleaded not guilty and also because he had tried to mislead the police investigation by creating a phoney invoice from a fake company.

The stolen items at the centre of the case were four snuff boxes from the Earl of Chichester’s home, Little Durnford Manor, and a silver ladle and peacock table decoration from an aristocratic house in Witney, Oxfordshire. Police traced the snuff boxes to a London dealer, whose representative told the police that three of the items had been sent to America.

When detectives caught up with Perovetz, he claimed he had bought the objects from a man who, according to the Crown Court judge, turned out to be “an invention in order to mislead police officers".