Christie's not to blame for inflated description

Thomson v Christie Manson and Wood and others (Court of Appeal - 12 May 2005) The Court of Appeal ...

Thomson v Christie Manson and Wood and others

(Court of Appeal - 12 May 2005)

The Court of Appeal has overturned a controversial decision of the High Court involving the dating and provenance of a pair of Louis-XV-style porphyry vases sold at auction in 1994 for £1.9m.

The High Court decided that Christie's owed Ms Thomson a special duty of care as an inexperienced purchaser who had approached Christie's for advice. The court said the firm had breached that duty by over-inflating the catalogue description in its advice and neglecting to inform her of the inherent risk that the vases may have been 19th century revival reproductions worth in the region of £20 000 to £30 000.

The decision sat uneasily with the judge's finding that there was a 70% probability that the vases were the significantly more expensive 18th century variety and that Christie's had not fallen below its duty of care to the general public in its cataloguing of the vases.

The Court of Appeal decided that an auctioneer was under no obligation to inform a prospective purchaser of possible doubts arising from the existence of 19th century copies, provided that a cautious auctioneer would consider those doubts 'fanciful' rather than 'real'.

Christie's, having exercised caution and rejected the possibility that the vases were 19th century imitations, was justifiably confident in its opinion. As such, Christie's could not be criticised for inflating the description and was not in breach of its duty of care to Ms Thomson.

Of some discomfort to insurers and auctioneers, the Court of Appeal was satisfied that a special client relationship was created in this case that extended the scope of the auctioneer's duty of care to this prospective purchaser. Had there been any real doubt about the dating of the vases, Christie's may have been in breach of that extended duty of care.

Comment: Auctioneers can try to avoid placing themselves in a conflicting role of agent to seller and adviser to buyer by pointing out clearly in their catalogues any third-party attributions of authenticity or, better still, insisting purchasers of high-value items obtain independent expert advice. Ross Baker, BLM London.

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