Daughter of press tycoon claims £1.9m urns are imitations

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The Independent Online

A member of one Britain's leading aristocratic families and a major auction house misrepresented the age and value of two ornate urns when they were sold to an art collector, the High Court in London heard yesterday as part of a £2m damages claim.

A member of one Britain's leading aristocratic families and a major auction house misrepresented the age and value of two ornate urns when they were sold to an art collector, the High Court in London heard yesterday as part of a £2m damages claim.

Taylor Thomson, 41, the daughter of Lord Thomson of Fleet - a former owner of Times Newspapers - paid £1.9m in 1994 for the two vases, believing them to be 18th century Louis XV urns. She outbid a member of the Getty family to buy them at an auction of items from Houghton Hall - the seat of the Marquess of Cholmondeley, the Lord Great Chamberlain - organised by Christie's.

Ms Thomson told the High Court that the vases are 19th century imitations and worth as little as £20,000. She is suing Christie's and the Marquess for the return of her £1.9m, plus 10 years' interest.

The vases were in court alongside Mr Justice Jack. One of the porphyry and ormolu vases - which stand a foot high and are embellished with a serpent and two lions - stood complete and the other lay dismantled on the bench.

Robert Miles QC, Ms Thomson's barrister, told the judge: "The age of these vases is at the heart of this case and we say the evidence on age is overwhelming." He said the quality of the pieces, when taking into account their casting, gilding and porphyry, was "way below the standards of 18th century French elite craftsmanship".

He added that, if they were among the many late 19th century imitations, they were worth "very little money at all".

The vases, Lot 56, which had an estimate of £400,000 to £600,000, were described in Christie's catalogue as 18th century Louis XV vases designed around 1760 for Philip, Duke of Parma, or a courtier, by Ennemond-Alexandre Petitot, the French architect.

Mr Miles said there was "not a shred of historical evidence" saying when the vases were made, there was no mention of the vases in any previous owner's inventory, no record of them ever having been shown in any exhibition and no record of them being seen by anyone visiting Philip, Duke of Parma.

He said there was no evidence of an invoice kept by Sybil Sassoon, who married into the Cholmondeley family, about her purchase of the urns some time before 1921. He added that any auctioneer would have seen such a lack of provenance as something of serious concern.

The court heard that Christie's, through Patrick Cooney, who was head of client services in New York, had provided Ms Thomson with advice about the purchase. Mr Miles said Ms Thomson had trusted Mr Cooney as an art adviser and had not considered she was dealing with Christie's merely as an auctioneer.

Christie's, which opens its case today, stands by the attribution in the sale catalogue and says the vases were made in the 18th century.

It says its cataloguing is supported by leading experts on French furniture and that the Houghton vases are almost identical to urns in the Getty Museum, which were also dated as 18th century. The Marquess, who is also defending the claim, says he was not involved in the cataloguing.

The case is expected to last for about three weeks.