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Jonathan Tredant, who trades from The Crane Depot, almost lost a walnut whatnot worth over £1000 to a group that he believes had swapped the label with another object.

The incident occurred on August 20 when Mr Tredant briefly left his premises, leaving an inexperienced colleague in charge.

A group of what he described as respectable and well-dressed Italians, a man and three women, approached the colleague, making a cash offer of £250 on “a pedestal” with a label for £340.

After consulting Mr Tredant by telephone the offer was accepted. However, Mr Tredant realised on his return that the group had actually taken a walnut whatnot priced at £1250. The £340 label was one that had been removed from a pine pedestal.

Mr Tredant believed that the labels had been deliberately swapped and he quickly reported the matter to the police and spoke to fellow dealers who provided a number for one of the group.

Mr Tredant made his way to nearby Exeter airport where it was agreed over the phone that he could meet with the group and discuss the situation with a police officer in attendance.

They met in the airport car park, where the police officer informed the group that should CCTV footage prove that they had swapped the label, they would be arrested. After further requests were made to return the item, Mr Tredant eventually stepped in and removed the whatnot from their car, returned their cash and left the group with the police officer.

He said he believed they were opportunists rather than organised and urged the trade to take measures to avoid label swapping.