Commentary - Extra duty to 'special client'

To what extent can you rely on an auctioneer's description? The question was raised in a recent case...

To what extent can you rely on an auctioneer's description? The question was raised in a recent case against Christie's that concerned the provenance of a pair of Louis XV-style porphyry urns.

The case turned on the status of an inexperienced purchaser, Ms Thomson, who was designated a 'special client' by Christie's and was advised by Christie's before the sale. She was not warned of the inherent difficulties in distinguishing objects manufactured in a mid-19th-century revival from their earlier and much more valuable 18th-century counterparts. Rumours following the sale led Ms Thomson to suspect that the urns were in fact 19thcentury reproductions.

Of course, no professional is in a position to provide a guarantee, but the standard of care that Christie's owed to the purchaser was that of a 'reasonably competent international auction house specialising in the sale of fine art and antiquities'.

Interestingly, the judge found that the probability that the urns were of the more valuable variety was in the region of 70% and that dating them as Louis XV was not negligent. However, the judge indicated that the catalogue description fell below the required standard by providing an unjustified feeling of confidence and certainty about the urns (such as suggesting they were designed by a famous designer, Petitot, for a duke or courtier). The description should have been qualified to Ms Thomson by providing her with the "fuller picture". Christie's were therefore found to be in breach of their duty of care.

Ostensibly, this is a hard judgement, given the apparent accuracy of the dating in an inherently uncertain field. It appears to impose an additional responsibility on an auction house to qualify to a special client grounds of uncertainty that might exist with a catalogue description.

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