Piggott silk sold by Sotheby's was false

Racing enthusiast spotted error in catalogue but auction house still conducted sale
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A horseracing enthusiast assumed he was backing a winner when he paid pounds 5,520 for the silks worn by Lester Piggott on his first Derby win. Sotheby's knew he was not.

The London fine art auctioneers failed to inform potential purchasers at its first sale of racing memorabilia, last November, that the prize silks were not genuine, despite having been alerted to the fact three months earlier.

John King, from Plumpton, in Sussex, had contacted Sotheby's when he spotted that the silks photographed in the catalogue did not match the ones pictured in newspaper cuttings of Piggott's win on Never Say Die in the 1954 Derby.

The only footage of the day was black and white, but Piggott wore the colours of the horse's owner, Robert Sterling Clark: cerise and grey stripes with a blue band across the middle.

"It was quite plain to see that whereas the catalogue picture had the pale stripe down the middle, Lester had the dark stripe down the middle. Obviously the pattern itself was the same but the garments were different," Mr King tells BBC1's Weekend Watchdog tonight.

"I rang Sotheby's because ...I thought rather than let them make a mistake it would only take a minute to give them a ring to tell them and presumably then they would change the description in the catalogue," he adds.

The catalogue for the Racing Sale, however, remained unchanged. The Marquess of Hartington, deputy chairman of Sotheby's Holdings and former Senior Steward of the Jockey Club, flagged up the the emotional high point of the sale in the foreword. He wrote: "We are particularly pleased to be able to offer in the same sale silks that were worn by Lester Piggott on the occasion of his first Derby win." The silks were conservatively estimated to fetch between pounds 300 and pounds 500.

Now, seven months later, Sotheby's has confirmed that it had its doubts about the silks before the sale. A caption under the photo of the silk in the catalogue said it was "believed to be" the one worn by Piggott in 1954. A spokesman for Sotheby's said: "We should have issued a pre- sale notice advising potential purchasers accordingly. We obviously regret we did not do this."

Mr King had spoken to Chantal Langley, at Sotheby's Newmarket office. She asked him to send the newspaper cutting and said that they had had a phone call from someone in America claiming that they had the original silks.

Mr King did not hear from Sotheby's until three months after the sale, which fetched pounds 1.7m. On 4 February, he received a letter from Mrs Langley stating: "The catalogue description of the racing silks reflected Sotheby's opinion as to their likely provenance given the information provided by the seller."

Mr King commented on Sotheby's actions: "It tends to make you feel that they will sell anything provided that the seller tells them that it's genuine."

Sotheby's is not legally obliged to give a refund, but has offered to do so. The unidentified purchaser is understood to be "keen to keep the silks" and "entirely happy with the way Sotheby's handled the matter".