Staff suspended by Sotheby's after 'art scam'

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Staff at Sotheby's, the world's oldest and most famous auctioneers, were suspended yesterday following allegations that works of art were smuggled into Britain.

An undercover documentary, to be shown tonight on Channel 4's Dispatches programme will include footage which allegedly shows a Sotheby's employee offering to smuggle to Britain a work by the 18th- century Italian painter Giuseppe Nogari, worth pounds 9,500, and acknowledging that it was illegal for the portrait to leave Italy. The film also shows another employee overseeing the arrival of the painting at the company's salesrooms in New Bond Street, central London.

The footage was taken by an undercover camerawoman who hid a fish-eye camera in a crystal brooch she wore while posing as an Australian keen to sell paintings she had inherited. She left the painting with Sotheby's and two months later it arrived in London. It was later sold at auction for pounds 7,000.

The programme is the result of an investigation by the arts journalist Peter Watson, whose book, Sotheby's: The Inside Story, being serialised in the Times, accuses the auctioneers of arranging the illegal export of Old Masters from Italy to England, involvement in the export of antiquities from India to England, and falsifying documents to hide the origin of works of art.

In a statement yesterday, Sotheby's confirmed that the staff concerned had been suspended but would not say how many had been suspended, nor who they were or what positions they hold.

"Dispatches appears to have attempted on several occasions to have deliberately enticed Sotheby's employees into breaching our strict procedures," the statement said.

"We deplore Dispatches' methods. Nevertheless, rules may have been broken and the staff concerned have been suspended pending a fuller investigation.

"Such behaviour, if proven, does not represent the company's practices, not will it be condoned by the company's management."

In recent years Sotheby's, which was founded in 1744 and has offices in London, New York, Paris, Rome, Madrid, Amsterdam and Geneva, has reviewed its trading practices, resulting in what the company describes as "clearly defined rules and standards of behaviour for its 1,600 employees around the world who annually inspect one million objects".

In 1983 the company was bought by the American developer Alfred Taubman, who owns 63 per cent of it.

In 1995 its turnover was $1.48bn (pounds 925m).