Gone for a song, you sucker: Arrests at a London auction house have made sellers nervous, but it is outside the capital that trickery is commonplace, says John Windsor

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RECENT arrests at a London auction house in connection with an investigation into alleged thefts may or may not result in charges. But the episode has caused a shudder among sellers at auction.

Since the recession, the biggest and most blatant repertoire of scams has been not in London but in provincial auction rooms. Fraudulent cataloguing, theft of goods and sale proceeds and manipulation of bidding are, if not widespread, at least common.

In the past three or four years, the number of new provincial auctioneers has risen by at least 20 per cent - nothing do with green shoots but a lot to do with auctioneers exploring new ways of turning an easy penny.

Unlike accountants, solicitors, valuers and surveyors, would-be auctioneers are not legally required to obtain professional qualifications before they wield a gavel. Some of today's newcomers obtained their fine art training in the motor trade; a century ago, their ilk would have been horse dealers. Others are unqualified but street-wise middle managers who bought out auction firms formerly owned by big estate agencies. Most are antique dealers and auctioneers, a kind of poacher/gamekeeper with an eye for a good bag.

Probably fewer than one in five provincial auctioneers has a professional qualification (membership of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors or the Incorporated Society of Valuers and Auctioneers, which have strictly monitored codes of conduct). Auctioneers fear no equivalent of the Property Misdescriptions Act (1991), which makes it an offence for estate agents to mislead. They are not even caught by the Sale of Goods Act (1979). The law - or lack of it - gives them free rein.

So, as the misfortunes of the recession have thrown more and more chattels into auction, more and more bent auctioneers have sprung up to knock them out cheaply to rings of confederates. One tell-tale sign of an auctioneer in league with a 'ring' in his own saleroom is his 'quick hammer', which falls at unexpectedly low prices. Afterwards the auctioneer and his friends share the cheap lots among themselves.

Vendors seldom attend the saleroom, especially if they are trustees or beneficiaries of a deceased's estate. Grief, age or geographical remoteness deters beneficiaries. Indolence or connivance with auctioneers may deter trustees. But those who do attend may find some of the tricks quite blatant. For example: one vendor saw her late husband's Pembroke table sold for pounds 220 at auction, but was sent only pounds 90 by the auctioneer. When she complained, she was told that was what it had fetched. She pointed out that she had been present at the auction and received a mumbled apology about book-keeping and pounds 130.

That sort of thing happens all the time. Some deceased's chattels, never listed in an inventory, simply disappear. A few solicitor/trustees, hard-pressed by the recession, accept backhanders from auctioneers to put deceased's chattels their way, or misappropriate the odd piece of Staffordshire porcelain that has fallen out of its tea chest. 'Straight' auctioneers maintain that although solicitor-trustees are sometimes bent, bank trustees have a reputation for honesty.

There are even bad pennies among liquidators. Advertisements for oriental carpet 'bankruptcy' auctions naming a liquidator and an auctioneer may seem respectable. But has the liquidator duped the auctioneer by falsely representing that the carpets, bought cheaply abroad, are bankrupt stock? If, unknown to bidders, the fly-by-night auctioneer is also the vendor - not illegal, strange though it may seem - then the bidding is bound to be 'trotted up' by place-men in the audience.

Tight money has pushed auctioneers into the arms of ring leaders. Take this example. A dealer asks for credit from the auctioneer, hinting that he will boycott his auctions if he is refused. He then defaults but offers membership of the ring as compensation. The hapless auctioneer agrees to auction the ring's goods, looking on lamely as they manipulate the bidding. Bear in mind that if an auctioneer takes longer than 10 days to pay vendors, it could be a sign that dealers are draining his cash flow.

A ring that does not include the auctioneer behaves differently from an in- house ring. To throw the auctioneer off the scent, such a ring will bid from different parts of the saleroom; or while chasing a dozen tables or chairs it wants to carry off cheaply, it will suddenly bid unaccountably high for one lot. The aim is to spoil the auctioneer's trust in his own 'feel' for the market.

To combat an unwelcome ring or score off local dealers, bent auctioneers will double-bluff by 'under-cataloguing' - for example, describing all Georgian furniture as 'style of' George III, whether genuine period pieces or not, relying on cluttered viewing conditions and dealers' greed to push up the price of clever reproductions. Their catalogues, in short supply, will disclaim all responsibility for misdescriptions of goods. No court of law would uphold contractual conditions framed by the seller in an attempt to evade the law of contract. But embarrassed buyers willrarely sue.

Compared with mock auctions, still the bane of local authority trading standards officers, the corrupt provincial auction is a picnic. At mock auctions the dupes are always the buyers; the sellers are the auctioneers themselves.

The Mock Auctions Act (1961) forbids restricting bidding to certain people. But touring gangs auctioning worthless toys or cutlery in hired halls can still 'lock in' 20 dupes for an hour and a half by restricting the bidding to the first 20 to raise their hands. Overcome by their 'good luck', the easily suggestible will bid pounds 20 or pounds 30 for undisclosed goods described in fulsome but unspecific terms by the auctioneer.

Another ruse is to use free gifts. These, however, are banned by the Act, so buyers are sweetened with trashy 'gifts' such as plastic combs or packs of playing cards that cost 1p. Selling goods for lower than the top bid is also illegal. But if the top bid has come from the auctioneer's stooge, how else can the goods be palmed off? Luckily for the cheats, there is one born every minute.

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