Red faces at the market over the missed masters

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THE STOLEN Gainsborough picked up at an antiques market for pounds 85 had escaped the attentions of thousands of art dealers for two weeks before it was bought by an amateur collector, writes Steve Boggan.

Traders at Bermondsey antiques market in south London say Gainsborough portraits of Judge Sir John Skynner and William Pitt the Younger, and a Sir Joshua Reynolds study of Sir Francis Hargrave were displayed on two consecutive Fridays without finding a buyer.

Finally, an amateur dealer bought the Skynner and Hargrave portraits for pounds 85 and pounds 60 respectively before having them valued by Sotheby's at pounds 75,000 and pounds 15,000. Later valuations put the paintings at up to pounds 2m.

'People here are kicking themselves,' said one dealer, who would not be named. 'I don't know who sold them, but I have been told roughly where the pitch was and that they had been sitting there for two weeks. The man who sold them must be sick as a parrot - but at least he may still have the other Gainsborough.'

The paintings were stolen from Lincoln's Inn Fields more than two years ago and were originally valued at pounds 6m. Sotheby's called the police last week when the buyer carried in the paintings, wrapped in black bin-liners, and asked for a valuation. Insurers had already paid out pounds 100,000 to the trustees of Lincoln's Inn, so the paintings may belong to the insurance company.

However, Bermondsey market is a 'market overt', one of 20 in England covered by a 15th-century rule giving an innocent buyer of stolen goods the right to keep them provided they are bought in good faith between dawn and dusk. It has been suggested that this principle may be challenged, but David Tench, director of the Consumers Association legal department, said that the buyer would probably win the legal argument provided he fulfilled the right conditions.