Heiress who paid £1.9m for 'imitation' vases wins legal fight with Christie's

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The Independent Online

One of the world's wealthiest women, Taylor Thomson, won her legal tussle with Christie's yesterday when the High Court ruled that the auction house had exaggerated its claims over the authenticity of two vases.

The 41-year-old daughter of the billionaire publishing magnate Lord Thomson of Fleet may now receive up to £2m in damages, interest and costs in the wrangle over her purchase of the urns which stand a foot high and are embellished with a serpent and two lions.

Ms Thomson, a Canadian film-maker, bought the pieces for £1.9m at auction in December 1994 - nearly five times their estimated sale price - in a vigorous bidding struggle against Ann Getty of the billionaire Getty family.

In its catalogue description for the sale from the Marquess of Cholmondeley's Norfolk seat, Houghton Hall, Christie's said that the urns were Louis XV vases, designed around 1760 by Ennemond-Alexandre Petitot for Philip Duke of Parma or a courtier.

But Ms Thomson, who lives in Los Angeles, claimed that after she bought them she discovered they were 19th-century imitations worth a mere £30,000.

Christie's is seeking to recover a portion of the damages from the Marquess of Cholmondley.

Lord Cholmondley, who settled his claim with Ms Thomson at the end of the 18-day hearing in March, insists the catalogue description was solely Christie's responsibility.

In his judgment, Mr Justice Jack ruled in Ms Thomson's favour despite being 70 per cent sure the vases had been accurately dated by Christie's.

After hearing detailed expert evidence from both sides he concluded however that the "unjustified firming-up" of claims in the sales catalogue had resulted in an "unjustified" feeling of confidence and certainty about the provenance of the urns.

While finding that dating the vases to Louis XV was acceptable, the auction house gave "what was in the circumstances an incomplete picture and Ms Thomson was entitled to a fuller one".

He said that Christie's was not justified in omitting the qualification that the urns may have been made in Italy, particularly Parma, and not France. The exclusion of the words "possibly Italian" was "one part of what I can perhaps describe as an unjustified firming-up of the catalogue description," he said.

It was incumbent on Christie's to inform her that a trend in Italy for making reproductions of the vases in the 19th century made the precise identification of the pieces an inexact science. Ms Thomson claimed that had she known this she would not have purchased the urns.

It was no more than possible, the judge said, that Ennemond-Alexandre Petitot produced the lion design for reproduction in porphyry and gilt-bronze and there was "not a jot of evidence" to suggest that they were designed for the Duke or a courtier.

In this respect, he concluded: "I am afraid that here Christie's gave way to the temptation to boost the urns by saying things which suggested a certainty about them which was wholly unjustified."

In a statement read outside the court yesterday, Ms Thomson said: "For me this case rested on an important matter of principle: whether a buyer of goods at an auction is able to rely on the auction house's claims for those goods.

"Mr Justice Jack upheld that principle and I am immensely grateful for his diligence and careful consideration of all the evidence placed before him in coming to his important decision," the statement said.

Christie's head of public relations, Catherine Fenston, said the auction house welcomed certain aspects of the ruling.

"The basis of that award is that, even though we believed the Houghton Urns to be 18th century, and even though they are almost certainly 18th century, we should - because she was a special client - have warned her of the existence of 19th-century imitations.We find this difficult to understand," she said.

"While we note that the damages the judge has awarded are likely, once calculated, to be significantly less than the sum she was claiming, we are considering appealing this finding of liability."

The issue of costs and any possible appeal will be dealt with by the judge at a later date.