'Conwoman wrote £400,000 of bad cheques'

Court told of spending spree on luxury goods
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A London-based woman conned some of Paris's biggest auction houses and finest boutiques out of more than £400,000-worth of luxury goods by writing cheques that she knew would bounce, a court was told yesterday.

Shahra Marsh, 52, allegedly spent two years amassing the fortune, which included antique furniture, paintings, expensive jewellery and Louis Vuitton suitcases and a Hermes handbag which she kept hidden in storage units in London.

Southwark Crown Court was told that Marsh, who is fluent in French, carried out her scam by striking up a rapport with staff at renownedauction houses and stores and would impress them with her knowledge of the expensive items.

She would allegedly then persuade them – on the phone, in person, or by letter – to dispatch the goods to her before her cheque had cleared. Only once she had the items would the auction houses realise that her cheques were no good.

Marsh's alleged scams took place between May 2005 and July 2007, before she was arrested in February this year.

Her biggest con was in May 2005, when she sent Tajan auction house a fraudulent cheque for £114,800-worth of goods, the court heard. She became so skilled, the prosecution alleges, that she cheated the auction house Massol twice in one week, acquiring goods worth £12,000 in total. On another occasion, she is said to have persuaded the manager of Giafferi auctioneers to take the Eurostar to London to hand-deliver jewellery, including a diamond ring and emerald necklace, which she had bought at auction. She accepted the goods and gave him a cheque that would later bounce, the court was told.

Sonal Dashani, for the prosecution, described Marsh as a "prolific fraudster", adding that she was able to get away with her scam for so long because "she appeared to be convincing".

Auction houses saw her as "their usual type of affluent customer," Ms Dashani said. "The purchasing of fine art and jewellery is a system that has been in operation for a long time and is based on trust. The vendors take stock of a person and it appears she instilled trust in them," she said.

Once she had gained their trust, Marsh would successfully bid onvarious items and then send the cheque, the jury was told. "Once the cheques were handed over, she would contact the auction houses repeatedly, seeking for the items to be delivered before the cheques had cleared," Ms Dashani said. "The auctioneers are keen to avoid a loss of sale so, faced with losing that sale, the items are handed over. She was very persuasive and insistent."

Marsh, who had several addresses in London, denies seven counts of obtaining property by deception, 12 of concealing criminal property and four of fraud. The trial continues.