Sotheby's to review company practices

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The Independent Online
The auctioneers, Sotheby's, last night announced that they were launching a full internal review of their practices following allegations that senior staff members were involved in offering to smuggle Italian art treasures to London.

The board of the world's oldest and largest firm of auctioneers continued to insist that its procedures were the "most stringent in the industry".

However, it went on to outline a number of measures to guard against a repetition of last week's accusations of improper practice which were made in a Channel 4 Dispatches programme.

Senior staff members were suspended after the allegations made in the programme that an expert offered to smuggle an 18th-century Italian painting - Old Woman with a Cup by Nogari - to London, where it would fetch a higher price.

In a statement issued last night, the Board of Sotheby's said it had set up a committee, comprising the company's independent directors.

"They will conduct an internal review of the firm's practices and review the firm's compliance and its strict code of conduct," the statement read.

It added that the committee would focus on international trade issues and auction room practices.

The company's president and chief executive officer, Diana Brooks, addressed staff yesterday, telling them: "The reputation and integrity of Sotheby's are the two things that matter the most to all of us."

It was also announced that a director of compliance would be appointed to head up a new department to work alongside the existing Internal Audit Department.

The company's house rules would be "further reinforced and clarified" if necessary and training would be strengthened to ensure the highest standards were maintained.

Following an investigation into last week's controversy, Mr Roeland Kollewijn, an Old Master specialist in Milan, resigned. Another member of staff is still suspended.

Following the allegations, many art dealers in Britain said that they were appalled by the news because of the damage to the industry's reputation at a "particularly sensitive" time.

Auction houses are currently facing what has been described as an unprecedented threat from three new areas of legislation: droit de suite, a levy on contemporary arts sales; undroit, a treaty which returns "stolen" goods, and the imposition of Value Added Tax on art imports into the European Union after 1999.

The dealers are concerned that these issues threaten to send much of London's long- established and lucrative trade abroad, to New York and Switzerland.