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A high-profile dealer with a specialist interest in Old Masters attended an auction in an area somewhat outside his usual interest.

There was a large number of possible works which he considered bidding on but he kept his powder dry for one particular lot where the description was “Studio of…”.

He scratched his head because he really couldn’t see how it could be “Studio of…”.

His gut reaction was that the composition and style looked completely alien to that time but nevertheless had an open mind and these words were there in the lot description, plain as day.

He thought he would place a bid but not get carried away. The bidding was competitive.

He then reflected that if it really was even “Studio of…” it was well worth paying for at this level and re-entered the bidding. Somewhat to his surprise the hammer came down on what he had decided was his final bid. The picture was his.

Afterwards he let an acknowledged expert colleague have a look at the picture, it being much more the forte of his colleague.

The colleague’s reaction was pretty swift: it was definitely a recent fake, and there was no possibility of it being even “Studio of…”.

Usual auction terms and conditions applied, for example the description was just “ an opinion”; buyer “should inspect beforehand”; and should also “form their own judgment” et cetera et cetera.

All standard stuff that forms the basis of buying at auction and that those experienced in the trade well understand.

To make headway, therefore, the dealer would have to show that the description and the work had nothing in common – that it had clearly been misdescribed.

Typical meaning

“Studio of…” typically means – to take, for example, from the definition used by Christie’s (not the agent involved in this matter) – that in the auction house’s “qualified opinion” it is “a work executed in the studio…of the artist, possibly under his supervision”.

This aggrieved dealer, when he came to see me, was particularly vehement that in the light of his colleague ‘s firm views, there surely could not have been any evidence at all that it was “Studio of…”.

Nervous about how to take the issue forward, the client had then gone on independently to investigate the matter more thoroughly himself, and the more he did so the more he became convinced that no remotely conscientious cataloguer could have discovered anything that could reasonably render the description “Studio of…” justifiable. He explained his detailed research.

Eventually, from being initially very doubtful as to whether he had the beginnings of a case, I became cautiously convinced that it was worth looking into further.

Face to face

Rather than drafting a careful letter, for various reasons the client proposed to seek to arrange a meeting with the auctioneer.

This was fine with me and I suggested he make the initial contact with the auctioneer to keep matters low-key. He did, and arranged for the three of us to meet, giving the auctioneer the option of including his own legal representative, which he declined.

We put to the auctioneer the research carried out and asked him to justify how he could even begin to consider, in all the circumstances, placing the description “Studio of…” onto this picture. Naturally we awaited his response with considerable interest, and my client was very much at the ready to ‘take notes’.

To his bemusement, and equally to mine, the auctioneer asked to leave the room for a moment and said he would be back shortly.

He was a little longer than expected but when he returned he was very clinical, said he would accept the painting back, and not pursue the purchase price.

Helpful reminder

Thousands of items are bought and sold at auction every day without any problem, so some helpful reminders from this relatively isolated incident may be:

  • Understand auction terms and conditions. They are easy to find and should be read before bidding.
  • Auctions work on the caveat emptor principle. Bid on what you know. My client could have consulted his more learned colleague before placing a bid on a work with which he was not particularly familiar.
  • In this quite unusual instance, it does seem as though there may well have been a good chance of setting the sale aside for recklessness (or more) in the description – particularly given the auctioneer’s reaction – but this can never be relied on: far better to do all the forensic investigation required beforehand rather than play the poker game that can take place after the purchase. Although, of course, the gamble is what makes the blood flow for many dealers.

Useful example of auction house terminology

By way of example only, here are the definitions in the current Christie’s London conditions of sale for pictures, drawings, prints, miniatures and sculpture:

Name(s) or Recognised Designation of an artist without any qualification: in Christie’s opinion a work by the artist.

Qualified headings “Attributed to…”: in Christie’s qualified opinion probably a work by the artist in whole or in part.

“Studio of …”/“Workshop of …”: in Christie’s qualified opinion a work executed in the studio or workshop of the artist, possibly under his supervision.

“Circle of …”: in Christie’s qualified opinion a work of the period of the artist and showing his influence.

“Follower of …”: in Christie’s qualified opinion a work executed in the artist’s style but not necessarily by a pupil.

“Manner of …”: in Christie’s qualified opinion a work executed in the artist’s style but of a later date.

“After …”: in Christie’s qualified opinion a copy (of any date) of a work of the artist.

“Signed …”/“Dated …”/ “Inscribed …”: in Christie’s qualified opinion the work has been signed/dated/inscribed by the artist.

“With signature …”/“With date …”/ “With inscription …”: in Christie’s qualified opinion the signature/ date/inscription appears to be by a hand other than that of the artist.

“Marked Fabergé, Workmaster …”: in Christie’s qualified opinion a work of the master’s workshop inscribed with his name or initials and his workmaster’s initials.

“By Fabergé …”: in Christie’s qualified opinion, a work of the master’s workshop, but without his mark.

“In the style of …”: in Christie’s qualified opinion a work of the period of the master and closely related to his style.

“Bearing marks …”: in Christie’s qualified opinion not a work of the master’s workshop and bearing later marks.

The date given for Old Master, Modern and Contemporary Prints is the date (or approximate date when prefixed with ‘circa’) on which the matrix was worked and not necessarily the date when the impression was printed or published.

Source: christies.com/pdf/onlineonly/conditionsofsale-london-01apr22.pdf

Milton Silverman is senior commercial dispute resolution partner at Streathers Solicitors LLP, London.