A house clearer has won a High Court battle to regain possession of a pair of medieval embroideries thought to be worth millions after a longstanding dispute with a fine art specialist.
But the 50-page judgment, which details an extraordinary tale of evasion and obfuscation, calls into question, time and again, the credibility of the eventually successful claimant. Despite winning the case, house clearer Ian Spencer was ordered to pay hundreds of thousands of pounds in fees and costs, including more than £95,000 including VAT to the defendant, S. Franses Ltd.
The London dealers were in possession of the embroideries having been asked to research them by Mr Spencer.
Ironically, it would appear that the judgment also finally gives Ian Spencer clear title to the embroideries after a number of disputes and challenges were ruled out of court owing to the statute of limitations (six years).
The tale starts back in 1997 when Judy Keele, an elderly Anglo-American woman, was admitted to hospital in New York and it became clear that she would not be returning to the flat she rented in Bolton Street, Mayfair in London.
Mrs Keele's legal guardian, John Nevin, who was also not in good health, had New York attorney Diahn McGrath appointed to sort out Mrs Keele's affairs, and she duly set about disposing of the flat and arranging for its contents to be cleared. First of all, Christie's removed items of value, and then Ian Spencer agreed to clear the remaining low-value goods for a fee of £5000.
The agreement specified that a Henry Moore bronze, thought to be concealed in the apartment – subsequently discovered bricked up behind the fireplace as a precaution against theft – would not form part of the clearance and would be handed back, which it was.
A receipt for the £5000 fee paid by Mr Spencer was issued, whose wording stipulated that, apart from the bronze, it was "irrevocable proof that Mr Spencer holds good title to any and every item and chattel formerly located at said premises" [i.e. the flat]. However, although Mrs Justice Thirwell eventually accepted the receipt as bona fide, she noted that Mr Nevin's signature was different from his usual signature at the time, something that could not be checked as Mr Nevin had died in 1998. This and the lack of a signature from the co-guardian, a Mr Tedeschi, later raised doubts over the legal standing of the receipt and thereby any rights that Mr Spencer might have to what he found when he cleared the flat.
It was this doubt over title that eventually became the primary reason for Mr Franses refusing to return the embroideries. However, the issue of title emerged only after years of research by Mr Franses at the behest of Mr Spencer, during which a major dispute had arisen over fees and whether a contract existed between them authorising Mr Franses to sell the embroideries at a fee of 30 per cent of the sale price.
The court heard how, despite Christie's clearing the flat of valuables, Mr Spencer found a number of items of significant value, which he sold for tens of thousands of pounds, as well as tens of thousands of Swiss Francs in cash. It also heard how he found the Henry Moore bronze behind the fireplace and the embroideries folded into a blanket in a bedside cabinet.
Questions were raised over whether the blanket and bedside cabinet had been the real place of concealment, but the High Court ruled that there was no evidence to prove otherwise.
Over the following six years, Mr Spencer showed the embroideries variously to experts at the V&A, Christie's and Sotheby's without progressing much further with them. In 2003 he approached St James's historical textile specialist Simon Franses and showed him the embroideries. "He had never seen anything like them," the judgment notes.
Mr Franses's efforts firmed up Mr Spencer's belief that the embroideries were much older than the 19th century attribution originally given to them. Ongoing research strongly pointed to them being 14th century, Polish or German, and possibly coffin hangings for a person of high status. As such, their value soared.
Further research over a long period of years confirmed their medieval origin and in the process Mr Franses and Mr Spencer discussed a deal whereby Mr Franses would continue his researches on the understanding that he would eventually get to sell the embroideries on Mr Spencer's behalf for a fee of 30 per cent of the sale price.
Negotiations went back and forth, while disputed clauses of the putative agreement were thrashed out and Mr Franses asked for a written contract to be provided. Verbal assurances from Mr Spencer persuaded him to continue with his work and, although a formal written contract was never signed, Mr Franses proceeded in the belief that one effectively existed between them.
In 2004, relations soured and it became clear that Mr Spencer wanted the embroideries returned. Mr Franses, however, argued that they had an agreement for him to sell them for the 30 per cent fee and that they had agreed that the arrangement would last seven years.
The dispute continued, with relations improving enough for Mr Franses to continue his research before they soured again. Eventually, in 2008, Mr Franses agreed to return the embroideries with no further claim if Mr Spencer paid him for the work carried out so far, at an estimated cost of just over £93,000. Mr Spencer refused.
The ongoing legal dispute over possession and fees saw various offers and counter offers rejected before Mr Franses began to worry about Mr Spencer's title. Research undertaken in early 2009 uncovered questions over Diahn McGrath's handling of the estate, including an online news report dating to 2003 of severe criticism of her behaviour by a New York judge.
The High Court noted that Mr Franses feared he might be held legally culpable if he returned the embroideries to Mr Spencer if title was not clear, and it also dismissed Mr Spencer's claim that Mr Franses was simply using this as an excuse not to return them out of malice. However, the judge also decided that Mr Franses could have raised his title concerns much earlier and discovered the same facts as early as 2003, and that it was too late to do so now.
Legal proceedings against both Mr Spencer and Mr Franses were then launched by a distant relative of Mrs Keele, who had recently been identified as her heir as the result of attempts to locate an heir by Mr Franses. However, in October 2010 the heir discontinued the action – possibly because of the statute of limitations expiring – turning her attention instead to the New York attorneys for breach of fiduciary duty.
The High Court in London, meanwhile, continued its assessment of the case, making it clear that Mr Spencer appeared to have been waiting for the statute of limitations to expire before he went public with the find.
"I suspect that he [Mr Spencer] has lived with the circumstances in which he acquired his windfall for so long that he cannot see why anyone should look at it suspiciously," concluded the judge. "The reality is that no one would look at it without suspicion."
Nevertheless, the statute of limitations had indeed passed and she ruled that there was no reason on the grounds of title for the embroideries not to be returned to Mr Spencer.
She also ruled that there was no contract between Mr Spencer and Mr Franses: "…the Defendant [S Franses Ltd] had put its case in a number of different ways… asserting different agreements with different terms at different times". The result was inevitable, she concluded: "The parties simply never reached agreement."
However, she did find for Mr Franses on the matter of fees, stating: "That the claimant should take [the] benefit without paying for the work that had been done would be unconscionable."