The A-listers' antique shop and the fakes made from wardrobes

Belgravia dealer who sells six-figure works to the stars linked to expert copier
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The Independent Culture

From behind his discreet shopfront in London's Belgravia, John Hobbs spent two decades selling high-end antiques with six-figure price tags to a glittering array of clients that ranged from Gianni Versace to Jennifer Aniston.

Such was his reputation, the aristocratic fashion designer Hubert de Givenchy felt moved to praise the Englishman's "imagination and good taste".

That was until it emerged that a large number of the items offered for sale by this debonair dealer had passed through a Kent farmhouse owned by an expert furniture restorer who was also accomplished in the art of producing copied or embellished antiques from materials such as old wardrobes, church pews and even barn planks.

The extent to which Mr Hobbs – and his once sought-after stock – have fallen will be confirmed later this month, when more than 100 items from his shop, whose combined asking price was once in excess of £5.5m, go on sale at a Buckinghamshire auction house with a total estimate of about £500,000. The antiques dealer, who began trading as a 14-year-old in his father's second-hand furniture shop on Chelsea's Kings Road, has always denied ever knowingly selling a fake.

This week he reached an out-of-court settlement with Dennis Buggins, his Kent-based restorer, after the pair fell out amid unsubstantiated allegations of unpaid bills and undelivered items of furniture.

The settlement, which left Mr Hobbs with a six-figure legal bill, follows a three-year wrangle during which Mr Buggins lifted the lid on what he said was a production line at his £2m farm, dedicated to manufacturing high-quality copies of work by great cabinet-makers such as Chippendale or the Russian craftsman Christopher Meyer.

In a storyline which would doubtless have been rejected by the writers of BBC's Lovejoy for being too far-fetched, the restorer said he employed a team of up to 30 craftsmen to make or adorn antiques using a store room of salvaged materials including brass fittings, old doors and second-hand olive wood and wall panelling.

Mr Buggins, who sold items to dealers around the world, claimed that his work – or "knock-ups" – had been misrepresented to potential buyers as original antiques, saying: "I would call them inventions or fakes."

He made claims about a number of pieces offered for sale by Mr Hobbs, including two mirrors described as "1740 George II looking glasses" which he said had been made from wooden panels that had been taken from a church.

In 2008, Sotheby's was forced to withdraw from sale two antique commodes which had been described by the auction house as "German Neoclassical, circa 1800" with an estimated price tag of £150,000 after Mr Buggins said they had been fashioned from old wardrobes. The restorer said another auction house sold a Georgian mahogany desk in 2007, attributing it to John Hobbs, when it had been made from another wardrobe. Mr Hobbs, 64, who resigned from the British Antique Dealers' Association after it announced an investigation into his business, has insisted that while he knew Mr Buggins made replicas, any such items sold in his shop were labelled as imitations.

But the question mark over the authenticity of products passing through the farm has had a dramatic effect on the value of what remains of Mr Hobbs' collection.

The sale on 15 December by Berkshire auction house Dreweatts includes a 3m-tall sculpture bought from a French dealer for £50,000 by Mr Hobbs, which is now being offered for sale for between £20,000 and £30,000.

A pair of heavy tables perched on carved griffins which the dealer paid Mr Buggins £40,000 to produce has an estimate of just £8,000 to £12,000.

The auction house, which is marking each item with a stamp "John Hobbs" to show its origins, said it was being careful to attach no date or attribution to the items unless they had already been vouchsafed by a major auctioneer.

Stephan Ludwig, executive chairman at Dreweatts, said: "There is no intention whatsoever to deceive potential buyers."

Mr Hobbs declined to comment on the sale. He is currently writing an autobiography about his career as an antiques dealer, entitled Honest John.