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Christie's sold me a £14,000 fake

Bogus antiques are everywhere, from rural fairs to the top auction houses, says Michael Winner

Published 20 August 2000 in News Review

Pipe dream: Winner with the Peter Pan statue that replaced the fake (Stuart Clarke)

I was rather pleased with my purchase - a bronze statue of Peter Pan by Sir George Frampton made in 1916. I bought it at a Christie's auction. It stood 19 inches high and was identical to, although smaller than, the famous statue by Frampton in Kensington Gardens, London, which I visited regularly as a child. It cost £14,115. I placed it on a Georgian chest of drawers in my study.

Some time later I was talking to Imogen Paine, an expert on bronzes. "Did you buy that Peter Pan in Christie's?", she asked. I knew from her voice that I was in trouble. She examined it and wrote confirming in no uncertain terms that my bronze was a fake. "A modern recast . . . made to mislead . . . below par in many details . . . the patina does not have the correct age to it . . ."

I was suddenly the proud owner of £14,000-worth of nothing. But could I prove it to the point where Christie's would refund my money? It's catalogue is full of legalistic wording putting practically all the responsibility on the buyer to investigate in advance of making a purchase. If a lot can be proved conclusively to be a forgery then you should get your money back. I wrote to Philip Belcher, the head of century furniture and sculpture at Christie's, and warned that I was investigating and might ask for the sale to be annulled.

I had taken the precaution of getting a "condition report" from Christie's. This provides information additional to that offered in the catalogue. It said the bronze was in good condition, there was a slight fatigue fracture to the stem of the pipes that Peter was holding and the marble base had an old repair on it. The catalogue gave my statue Christie's highest authentication. It said it was "inscribed" and "dated 1916". In saleroom jargon the words "inscribed and dated" mean the auctioneer is telling you this is genuine as opposed to "date" or "bearing date" or "bearing inscription" which mean the reverse. It said it was "cast from the model by Sir George Frampton", meaning it was his work.

I showed it to a dealer, Robert Bowman, former head of sculpture at Sotheby's. He thought it was a poor-quality cast, that the patina was recent and not of a type usually found on this model. He reported that the bronze lacked detail and the pipes Peter Pan held were both new and a different shape from those normally on the statue.

This was seriously in conflict with Christie's condition report and catalogue description. Edward Horswell, another senior gallery owner and bronze expert, was equally unenthusiastic.

I began to sense a reluctance among the dealers to take on Christie's head to head. Peyton Skipworth, deputy managing director of The Fine Art Society in Bond Street, London, agreed it was poorly repatinated but was sure it was old. By now Paine had taken it off the base, looked at the core-dust, metal filings and screws inside and was certain it was a recent fake.

Paine told me that the best expert in town was Diana Keith Neal, head of the bronze department at Sotheby's. But Keith Neal was reluctant to act against Christie's: "It's tricky, you know. There but for the grace of God goes one, if you know what I mean. You can understand."

"I think you're individual people," I said. "I don't think a business cartel should influence you."

"Often doctors don't like doing it against each other. It's similar," said Keith Neal.

"Yeah, but where do the public end up if they can't go to the . . ."

"Dead!" she said, laughing.

"I couldn't have, put it better myself," I said.

I still think an expert should give his or her opinion, regardless. Indeed, it is cosiness between Sotheby's and Christie's that has them in great trouble at present.

Christie's has admitted collusion in fixing its commission scales in 1993 and 1995 after consulting Sotheby's. The chairman of Sotheby's has resigned. In America Sotheby's is being prosecuted for illegal restraint of trade. Christie's, having ratted on Sotheby's has been granted freedom from prosecution in America. But it is not free from class action suits which will likely be brought against Christie's and Sotheby's by anyone who has bought or sold anything since the date of the alleged commission fixing. Sotheby's, being a public company, is also liable to suits from shareholders who could claim their holdings have lost value. The cost could run into tens of millions of dollars.

Back to my bronze. Keith Neal wrote that I should rely on Paine's damning reports. She had faith in her. I telephoned Belcher and told him the evidence that I would present. "There seems to be a conflict of opinion," he said.

"I don't want to see you in court, Philip, but if I have to I will," I said. After a silence, he suggested that I send in my bronze. He wanted to compare it with another Peter Pan. That inspection seemed to convince Christie's that mine was a fake. It returned my £14,115 - exactly the amount I had to pay for the good bronze of Peter Pan when it came up for sale. Very generously, I did not ask Christie's to cough up the hundreds of pounds for the reports I had acquired casting doubts on the first bronze.

On June 7 this year, two years and three months after I had bought it in Christie's main rooms in King Street, the same bronze appeared in Christie's cheaper-line saleroom in South Kensington. The catalogue entry had been completely changed. It was now described as "a bronze figure of Peter Pan, second half 20th century. After Sir George Frampton". The catalogue referred to "date 1916" instead of "dated 1916". A subtle difference, meaning Christie's did not believe the date. It also said "the flute later, the bronze re-patinated". This acknowledged "fake" sold for £8,198

Twenty years ago I wrote a lengthy expose for The Sunday Times of mis-cataloguing by Christie's and Sotheby's. It revealed them knowingly selling dud paintings, inventing names of painters, a general "upping" of authentications. Then Julian Agnew, president of the British Antique Dealers' Association, said he thought the attributions were 99% correct in print sales but "a much lower percentage" in paintings sales.

Wherever I go, smart shops, antique fairs, in London, out of town, usually no more than half of what is on offer is genuine. I remember one very posh Mayfair antique furniture shop regularly buying from a less reputable dealer in Kensington who was known in the trade to make two tables out of one antique table. He was barred from the Grosvenor House Antiques Fair for this practice. Why did the Mayfair shop buy there? Because if a customer found out, it could offer the money back and say: "We bought it from a reputable dealer, so sorry." This is the ethos of some people in the increasingly growing antique trade.

It extends right down the line. I was recently at a book and paper fair. A dealer was offering "Genuine autographs. Guaranteed genuine". In front of him were boxes of movie star signed postcards, just the things I used to write off for when I was a kid.

We all knew the signature was printed. They were standard issue movie star mementos. "These aren't genuine," I said. "You know they're not. I've got dozens at home." The dealer just looked at me as if to say: "Do go away."

My only advice is this: if you are spending real money, get anything you buy checked out. The only difficulty you will have is finding someone in the same business who is prepared to tell you the truth.