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Their enquiry will concentrate on international trade issues and auction room practices.

Sotheby's will also create a new department headed by a full-time Director of Compliance to work with the internal audit department to enforce the existing code and any new guidelines that are recommended.

These measures, announced after a crisis meeting of Sotheby's main international board in London, reflect a determination not only to deal with the specific issues raised by the Channel 4 Dispatches programme, but to do everything possible to prevent a recurrence of the 10-day grilling which they received in the media.

A spokesman said: "We cannot stress enough how seriously we are taking this issue. As a company we are nothing without the trust and integrity which has traditionally been placed in us."

In addressing Sotheby's staff after the meeting Diana Brooks, the president and chief executive officer, stressed: "The reputation and integrity of Sotheby's are the two things that matter the most to all of us."

Sotheby's already substantial code of conduct, which employees must sign, has been in place for some 18 months. It was encouraged in part by a 1995 Dispatches programme which focused on Sotheby's antiquities department.

In response to specific allegations made against Sotheby's employees, Roeland Kollewijn, the Milan Old Master expert, has resigned and George Gordon, the London Old Master expert, is understood to be still suspended pending enquiries.

Though Sotheby's take issue with many of the allegations made against them they will not, as a company, be taking any libel action. They take the view that it is now time to look ahead rather than back.

 

Sotheby's enquiry and heritage implications

The wider implications for the rest of the trade of a whiter than white Sotheby's with even more stringent house rules have already been the subject of much speculation.

Lord Renfrew of Kaims-thorn, master of Jesus College Cambridge, who last week announced the establishment of a research centre to combat the illegal trade in antiquities, is reported to have called on Sotheby's to abandon auctions of antiquities altogether.

Sotheby's could consider that smaller, fully provenanced antiquities sales might be in their best interests in the light of changing public views on heritage.

However, the trade as a whole will need to do all that it can to guard against being automatically cast in the role of villain in the heritage debate.

In a letter to The Times published last Friday, Patrick Matthiesen of London's Matthiesen Gallery responded to Lord Renfrew's proposals with a reminder that while "everybody must deprecate the wholesale looting of archaeological sites... It is not unreasonable for a private owner to to seek to realise the best possible market price for his legitimate possessions."

Unreasonable restrictions on the circulation of property will only lead to abuse of the system, he points out.