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Dealers in London, Berkhamsted, Herts, Woodstock, Oxon, Westerham, Kent and Ampthill, Beds have fallen foul of the scams totalling over £80,000 that began towards the end of May.

Three men from the Irish trade – who are quite well known in many of the major antiques centres in the south of England – are believed to be involved although in all cases only two have operated together at one time. The perpetrators are thought to be based in Essex, although the speed and size of the recent scams suggest that the parties may plan to abscond shortly.

Police say the confidence tricksters have so far used a number of methods – all designed to take advantage of the trust that exits between fellow dealers.

One of them posed on the telephone as a well-known Irish dealer to convince Paul Meyer of Beechridge Antiques in Berkhamsted to part with several pieces of rosewood furniture on May 23.

Alan James of The Chair Set in Woodstock, Oxfordshire, had already done business with the two men, but lost contact with them after handing them a set of 14 Chippendale-style chairs on a sale-or-return basis several weeks ago.

The police originally cited both incidents as civil debts, but – with the help of the trade – have since realised that a system was being worked and have launched a criminal investigation as a result.

In the incident at Westerham, the method of operation was highly sophisticated. Here the ‘runners’ worked hard to gain the trust of the local dealing community by taking some modestly valued goods on a sale-or-return basis from one dealer, returning them without incident the following week. With confidence established, two men then took two major pieces – a Sheraton satinbirch Pembroke table with painted Kauffman-type decoration and a lady’s satinwood cylinder bureau bookcase – valued at £27,000 from another dealer. This time they did not return.

In a further twist, the dealer was contacted later by Essex police with the news that his furniture had been reported stolen from a van in a pub car park. Initially it was difficult to disprove this story until similar tales emanated from other parts of southern England.

In several of the scams a van was used from an Essex hire company although another van from a legitimate antiques business had also been employed. It was recorded by Customs officials bound for the Continent shortly after the Berkhamsted incident, leading to speculation that the goods have been sold for cash abroad.

There are fears that, as rumours circulate, the scam is painting the Irish trade as a whole in a negative light, with English dealers increasingly reluctant to do business with anyone speaking with an Irish accent.

Although he believed an arrest was imminent, Detective Constable Gary Hall of the Hemel Hempstead area crime unit warned dealers to be wary of anyone who appears to be “unnecessarily pushy” or in a rush when completing a sale or return deal.

Anyone with further information is advised to contact their local police force.