A JUDGE’S ruling over an antique steel knife has challenged the policy of “Let the Buyer Beware” and may affect auctioneers’ cataloguing practices and their terms and conditions.
In a Dorset court, District Judge J. Freeman ruled against the legal convention of Caveat Emptor when a “material misdescription” in cataloguing and, importantly, the presentation of the lot in an image supplied with the auctioneers’ description, had led to a purchase.
The case was brought before Weymouth County Court by militaria dealer Alan Beadle, who bought the knife at Eastbourne Auction Rooms on May 4 last year.
The auctioneers had described it as “Steel bladed military kukri knife, the leather scabbard with impressed military marks” and estimated it at £20-30. Mr Beadle lodged his bid by email and purchased the lot for £150 plus premium.
When he received the knife, Mr Beadle realised that it was not a military kukri as it had no military marks on the knife itself. In fact it was a civilian knife, worth in the region of £20.
The knife was also two inches too short to fit in the scabbard, which was bent over and creased at the end, something which was impossible to tell from the picture he was sent of the knife in the scabbard.
The auctioneers’ defence was that it was up to buyers to satisfy themselves of the nature of what they were buying before the sale and that Mr Beadle had not asked the right questions before bidding.
As with a great many auctioneers, the terms and conditions of Eastbourne Auction Rooms state that lots are set out in the catalogue “with all faults, imperfections and errors of description, and neither the vendor nor the auctioneers are responsible for the authenticity, attribution, genuineness, origin, authorship, date, age, period, condition or quality of any lot”.
The terms and conditions continue: “All statements are a matter of opinion and should not be taken as implying statements or representations of fact.”
When the case came to court Eastbourne Auction Rooms maintained that the description was correct and pointed out that Mr Beadle was a specialist in arms and militaria and they were not.
However, the judge stated in his ruling that use of the word “military” in the description had constituted a “material misdescription of the item which led the claimant to purchase it”.
The ruling continued: “By accepting his bid they must have known he might act that way and therefore had a duty to get the description correct.
“Additionally, as the items plainly did not belong together, the single photo of the knife in the scabbard is itself capable of being a misdescription.”
The dealer said in his submission to the court: “It takes no expert knowledge to see that it is quite obvious that the knife had nothing to do with the sheath.”
Judge Freeman ordered the auctioneers to pay Mr Beadle £200 plus a £30 court fee, but stated: “In coming to this conclusion, I do not in any way impugn the honesty of the defendants. They have quite innocently misdescribed the item for which he has no use at all.”
At the time of going to press, no one at Eastbourne Auction Rooms was available for comment.
The ruling could now set a precedent for similar cases which come up in local courts. It means that the traditional defence of Caveat Emptor may not offer such a legal absolution for auctioneers in the future, and it also means that auctioneers will have to be more careful about how they present lots in images promoting sales.
Such cases are not uncommon. Indeed, a further case comes up this week at Gloucester County Court in a claim being made against Holloways auctioneers by collector John Goulding with regard to the condition of an antique onion bottle which he bought for £411.
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