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Sotheby’s not negligent over Coleridge chain

12 March 2012Written by Mark Bridge

THE High Court has ruled that Sotheby’s were not negligent in cataloguing and valuing a judge’s gold chain of office as late 17th century rather than a spectacularly rare survivor from Tudor times.

Sotheby's valued the chain at £35,000 on that basis for a private treaty sale in 2006, but the new owners went on to sell it as a Tudor collar at Christie's in 2008 for £260,000.

The case was brought by Lord Coleridge of Ottery St Mary, who sought damages based on the difference between Sotheby's valuation and the later auction price. Though Judge Mark Pelling QC ruled that Sotheby's had ultimately undervalued the chain for a private sale, awarding £15,000 to Lord Coleridge, he said that the claimant had failed to prove that the collar dated from the Tudor period, or that Sotheby's had given him advice that "no reasonably competent appraiser or valuer working for an international auction house at the date the advice was given could have arrived at".

He also awarded substantial costs to Sotheby's, amounting to 100 per cent of costs prior to January 2012 (during which time Lord Coleridge's legal team changed the basis of their claim) and 90 per cent of the cost of subsequent proceedings, including the six-day hearing held between February 7 and 14. Together they are thought to run into hundreds of thousands of pounds at least.

The case centred on the Coleridge Collar, a 20½oz gold judicial chain of office made up of 27 S-links interspersed with 26 knot-links, with an unenamelled Tudor rose flanked by portcullises at its centre. Family tradition had it that the chain had been given to the first Justice of the Common Pleas in the late 15th or early 16th century and passed from office-holder to office-holder until it came into the possession of the last Chief Justice of the Common Pleas, Lord Coleridge CJ, in 1873.

The prospect of the sale of this family heirloom arose from the huge cost of maintaining Chanter's House, Ottery St Mary, home of the Coleridge family since the late 18th century. Sotheby's disappointing valuation of the chain persuaded trustees to sell the house and contents in 2006. The Coleridge Collar, along with other items belonging personally to Lord Coleridge, were sold privately to Mr and Mrs Norris, the new owners of the house. But their decision to sell the collar two years later on the advice of silver dealer Duncan Campbell, as the Tudor artefact that the Coleridge family had always believed it to be, provoked a legal storm.

Essentially Lord Coleridge's case was that Sotheby's had taken too little time and care in researching the chain. His legal team set out to prove this with recourse to scientific testing, analysis of manufacturing techniques and prolonged and vigorous cross-examination of witnesses.

But the judge's verdict was that all this effectively added nothing to the conclusion reached by Sotheby's expert Elizabeth Mitchell during what he acknowledged was a hurried visit to the Coleridge family home to inspect the collar: namely that there was no record of the chain prior to 1714 and that there was nothing to prove that it was not of post-Restoration manufacture.

Questions of Purity

In a complex hearing that probed deep into auction and trade practice, Lord Coleridge's case relied heavily on the fact that Elizabeth Mitchell had not had the chain assayed.

Subsequent analysis showed that the chain itself was of 20ct gold, while the central rose was of 22ct and Lord Coleridge's legal team originally claimed that this firmly dated it to the period of the Great Debasement (1546-1551) when Henry VIII deliberately lowered the purity of England's gold coinage. This claim was later amended to say that the chain had to date to before 1576, when the minimum purity for the manufacture of gold objects was raised to 22ct.

It was also argued that no eminent judge would have commissioned a chain of sub-standard gold in the late 17th century, but Judge Pelling heard sufficient evidence to conclude that gold of a lower purity (sometimes from the melting of older pieces) was commonly in use in that period. He took into account the evidence of sub-standard gold being found among the excavated stock-in-trade of a 17th century London jeweller, known as the Cheapside Hoard, as well as other well-documented sub-standard pieces from the period.

Questions of Technique

It was also claimed that Sotheby's had not taken sufficient note of the moulding of the chain links. Expert evidence for the claimants said that indentations in the back of the links showed that they had been created using the slush-casting technique which was prevalent from medieval times to the 16th century.

It was stated that by the late 17th century this technique had been superseded by sand-casting and lost-wax casting, but once again the judge heard sufficient contradictory evidence to find that this was not conclusive evidence in the dating of the chain.

Questions of Expertise

In his judgment Judge Pelling was critical of inconsistencies in the evidence of silver historian Wynard Wilkinson, who appeared as an expert on behalf of Lord Coleridge, complaining that what was said in court differed from his written submissions.

He said he had more confidence in Charles Truman, who appeared as the expert witness for Sotheby's, particularly with regard to his experience as head of Christie's silver department from 1984 to 1990 in a case that revolved in part around auction house practice. He said that he also set great store by the "disinterested" factual evidence of Philippa Glanville and of Marian Campbell, both distinguished experts in the field who cast further doubts on the chain's Tudor credentials.

Questions of Valuation

In assessing the proper value that Sotheby's should have put on the collar for private sale, the judge explored the normal practices of auction houses in such cases. Elizabeth Mitchell said that, had she been asked, she would have advised a valuation of double the low end of her auction valuation. Lord Dalmeny of Sotheby's, who was involved in the negotiations with the Coleridge family, agreed that this was one common way of arriving at a value. Charles Truman said that his approach would be to use the top estimate plus buyer's premium and VAT.

On behalf of Lord Coleridge it was advanced that Sotheby's should have been far more diligent in ascertaining the market value of such a chain, and that "a simple phone call" to London dealers S.J. Phillips would have established that they had sold the only comparable 17th century collar to Arthur Gilbert for £300,000 some ten years previously.

However, Judge Pelling rejected the idea that S.J. Phillips would have revealed the price to Sotheby's, whom they would consider rivals in the market. He went on to conclude that, in general terms, contacting retail dealers with regard to value was unrealistic.

Charles Truman gave evidence that in 2008 he set an auction value of £100,000 including premium on the Gilbert Collar when valuing it independently for the V&A, suggesting a hammer price of £80,000. He went on to say that he considered that an estimate of £40,000-60,000 would have been correct for the Coleridge Collar, but he also stated that he did not consider Sotheby's £25,000-35,000 estimate unreasonable.

In the end, the judge concluded that Lord Coleridge had not proved that the auction estimate was one that no reasonable valuer would have arrived at. He went on to apply the formula suggested by Elizabeth Mitchell and arrived at a figure of £50,000 for a private treaty sale.

Questions of Contract

Sotheby's entered a plea that in advising Lord Coleridge they were governed by the standard terms of a draft contract emailed in February 2006 which excluded liability or limited it to £35,000.

The judge said that the terms of such a contract could not refer to the private treaty sale that was negotiated because it specifically referred to a sale by auction and that a full contract was only signed just before the eventual auction in October 2006, which "suggests that neither party considered there was any contract in place before that date".

He concluded that no such contract was in place when advice was given on a private treaty sale in June 2006.

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