Conwoman admits £2m fraud spree

Divorcee on benefits defrauded top auction houses out of luxury goods
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The Independent Online

To the proprietors of the renowned auction houses that Shahra Christina Sylvia Marsh de Savigny frequented, she seemed the perfect customer.

Draped in a £20,000 fur coat and bedecked in jewels, she would spend tens of thousands of pounds at a time on art, jewellery and antiques.

But it was all a scam. The grandly-titled Ms de Savigny was, in fact, Shahra Marsh, a 52-year-old divorcee who had no money and lived on incapacity benefits.

For six years she spent every day perfecting and perpetuating a con technique that duped some of London and Paris's biggest auction houses and finest boutiques.

Bonhams, Sotheby's and Christie's in London were taken in, as were others in Geneva and Paris. In all, Marsh conned some of the world's most exclusive dealers out of £2m of goods. And she did it simply by writing cheques she knew would bounce.

Yesterday, six days into her trial at Southwark Crown Court, she admitted her guilt, confessing to 20 charges of fraudulently obtaining and concealing goods from auction houses in Paris between May 2005 and July 2007.

It can also now be reported that Marsh admitted 18 similar counts that took place in London and Geneva at previous appearances. She will be sentenced this morning and faces years in prison.

Born in Iran, Marsh married a property developer and lived a "comfortable life" in Britain before they divorced in 2001. Then she turned to crime, building up a rapport with auction houses and persuading them to release the goods she had "won" before her cheques had cleared.

At one point she became so skilled in her scams that she duped the same auction house, Massol, in Paris, twice in a week. Her most expensive "purchase" was a diamond ring worth nearly £70,000.

She managed to evade police for so long by using a variety of addresses in Mayfair, Canary Wharf, Bayswater and the Isle of Dogs, in London.

In 2004 she was caught and imprisoned for 10 months, but the police never found the hidden goods and, upon her release, she continued her scheme. Then, in 2006, officers arrested her again. She said a key police found on her was for a garden she owned – it was a lie. The key was for a safety deposit box which contained £770,000 of stolen jewellery. She was released on bail but arrested again in September 2007 for continuing with her scam.

Finally, in February this year, police officers discovered a lock-up in the Docklands containing a stash of more than £1m worth of antique furniture, paintings and jewellery.

Marek Coghill, from the Metropolitan Police's regional asset recovery team, said he believed the scam started as a means to create a pension fund. He said she "didn't like to pay for anything".

He added: "She would drop names into conversations to provide the persona of someone who is the usual type of client. In the end she would become so well-known that she would be able to circumvent their usual procedures. She fitted in very nicely in that world, and for her it was about using her background to facilitate her criminality."