Unfortunately the two mahogany chairs were fakes.
Sotheby's has just discovered that the "eighteenth century" chairs, which were bought by a Canadian millionaire for pounds 463,500 in 1994 were in fact made in 1990. To make matters worse, a matching pair of similar chairs sold two years later fetched a world record price of pounds 837,500.
The auction house's two top furniture experts, Graham Child and Joe Friedman, have resigned in the wake of the discovery and Sotheby's is trying to freeze the assets of the chairs' vendor. A spokesman yesterday confirmed that they had issued a writ demanding damages of pounds 1.7m under the Misrepresentation Act.
Yesterday London's top auction houses closed ranks and refused to comment on the scandal. Forgery is a highly sensitive issue for auction houses, and is a problem that has affected most of them at one time or another. One specialist, who refused to be named, said simply: "You cannot carbon date every item. Everything gets checked as far as possible - that's our responsibility - and we do call in other experts when there are doubts."
The enormous volume of sales in the international art market is partly to blame for the problem. Sotheby's in London sells around 100,000 lots a year and employs 400 experts worldwide. Christie's, in South Kensington, one of the busiest auction room in the world, holds 368 sales a year with an average of 200 lots. Annually it sells around 87,000 lots but there are only 30 experts to check the items that are offered for sale.
Even allowing for human error, one industry insider said it was surprising that more detailed checks had not been carried out on items of such a high value. "The fact that the specialists in question have resigned does really suggest that they mucked it up," he said.
"I can't really think it was down to a lack of knowledge, because one would think that Sotheby's and Christie's would have some of the best specialists around and they do know their subject. They do have a lot of items to check but with something of such high value I am surprised more time was not devoted to checking it out."
The chairs were said to have come from St Giles's House, near Wimborne in Dorset, the seat of the Earls of Shaftesbury. The 1994 catalogue said they had been bought by the fourth Earl in 1759.
The St Giles's House collection is said to be one of the most magnificent ever to have been built up in mid-18th century England. Its furniture has been attributed to Thomas Chippendale, William Hallett Senr and William Vile, three of this country's most important cabinet makers.
The forgery might never have come to light, if the owner of the first pair, Herbert Black, a Canadian scrap metal millionaire, who has a large collection of English furniture, had not decided to take a closer look. The stuffed backs and padded arms were opened and the veneers and trellis patterns were lifted. The timber found underneath was allegedly only nine years old.
When Mr Black contacted Sotheby's to inform them, the auctioneers promptly examined the second pair, which had been offered for sale by the same person. They too were found to date back to 1990. Both buyers were reimbursed.
The chairs were offered to Sotheby's by Catherine Wilson-Cook, of Savernake Forest in Wiltshire. She is married to the owner of Cook of Marlborough, a firm of furniture dealers and restorers. Although her name did not appear in either the 1994 or the 1996 catalogue, she is named in Sotheby's writ, which was lodged last month. Yesterday she declined to comment.
Robin Woodhead, Sotheby's European chief executive, said there had been an internal investigation into how Mr Child and his deputy could have failed to spot the fakes. "We asked many questions but it became clear that there was no wrongdoing," he said. "We then notified our insurers, reimbursed the purchasers and decided that our best course was to go for the vendors."
The art of forgery is nothing new but many art experts yesterday maintained that such scandals were rare. Tom Hoving, a former director of the Metropolitan Museum in New York and the author of a book on art forgery, said spotting fakes was not an infallible science. "I would not criticise auction houses for the odd forgery. The enormous volume of stuff that is being sold at the moment makes it very hard to exhaustively check everything," he said. "The experts are usually extremely good and they know their stuff but they just don't have time to have that third look or pass it through that scientific test. It is a case of having a quick look, relying on the gut instinct and moving on to the next thing. In that case it's easy to see how the odd thing can slip through the net."
David Lee, editor of the Art Review, said the colossal amounts of money swirling around the art market were bound to attract forgers. "If someone thinks they can get half a million pounds from copying a Picasso drawing, which may only have about eight lines in total, then it's an easy way to make money. The problem is that you are relying on connoisseurs to spot the fakes. It's not reasonable to expect them to use all the scientific tests available on every item that comes up for sale and in the end you have to take a chance on the expert.
"Having said that I do find it astonishing one of their experts could not tell these chairs were made in the Nineties." But Robert Holden, a fine art expert, said it was extremely rare that fakes actually reached the sale rooms.
"I'm sure the auction houses are offered a lot of fakes every year but the experts know their stuff and only a tiny percentage get through," he said. "It is by no means endemic to the industry and in this case Sotheby's simply made a balls up.Checks are made as far as possible but in the end it comes down to a simple case of caveat emptor, or buyer beware."
t In May 1999, the world's most expensive helmet, which had been bought by the Royal Armouries for pounds 114,000, was found to be an imitation. The Filippo Negroli helmet, thought to date to the 1530s, was the most expensive item of armour in the world when it was sold at Sotheby's in July 1997.
t In 1995 Bonhams was forced to withdraw a Jimi Hendrix Smash Hits album from its sales. It was offered for sale on the basis that it had been signed by Hendrix but the expert who checked the album realised that the guitarist died before the record was made.
t In 1994 an investigation into an international trade in fake Wedgwood china was launched. Sotheby'sunwittingly sold an extremely rare Bacchus plate purporting to have been made between 1776 and 1780. The plate, and other items, had been made by a Staffordshire potter in the second half of this century.
t But fakes can also be sought after. In 1997, Sotheby's was amazed when a fake World Cup trophy was sold for pounds 254,000. The fake trophy was made after the real World Cup was snatched in 1966.
t Eric Hebborn produced thousands of Old Masters drawings in the Sixties. In 1998 a year after his death, The Art Forger's Handbook, his guide to faking a work of art, was published. His ruses included using olive oil to create "interesting stains" and the use of coffee and tea to tint papers.
t One of the most famous fakes of all time were the five photographs taken in 1916 of the Cottingley Fairies. The fairies were made by two girls with a hat-pin and coloured paper but last year the pictures still sold at Sotheby's for pounds 8,050.Reuse content