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Now the Court of Appeal has reversed what was seen by some as one of the more bizarre legal rulings made in recent years.

The result means that multi-millionaire Canadian heiress Miss Thomson may well face legal costs that will surpass the £1.75m she paid for the Marquess of Cholmondeley’s disputed Houghton porphyry urns in 1994. She is reported to have been ordered to pay an initial £500,000 into court towards costs.

As reported in ATG No 1641, May 29, 2004, Ms Thomson brought her High Court claim after becoming convinced that the urns she had bought were not 18th century originals as catalogued, but later 19th century copies.

After exhaustive tests and evidence, Mr Justice Jack ruled in the High Court that on balance there was a 70 per cent probability that the urns were 18th century originals.

He also ruled that although Christie’s had “firmed up” their cataloguing – a view overturned at appeal – attributing the urns to Ennemond-Alexandre Petitot for the Duke of Parma, cataloguing conventions, in which a description is seen as expert opinion rather than absolute fact, still stood.

Where he found in Miss Thomson’s favour was in the nature of her relationship as a special client of Christie’s.

He ruled that the acknowledged special relationship with Ms Thomson, in which Christie’s knew that she relied entirely on their expertise, meant that the auction house had a special duty of care to make her aware of any potential problems or doubts over the firmness of their attribution when they chose to promote the urns to her.

As the Appeal Court noted, however, Christie’s had no such doubts at the time.

Despite ruling that Christie’s opinion “was correct and reasonably held”, Mr Justice Jack in the High Court concluded that since Ms Thomson said she wanted to buy only “museum quality” works of art and was a novice in the field, “she should have been told that the catalogue inflated what could properly be said about the urns and was likely to give a misleading impression about Christie’s knowledge and the sureness of their judgment”.

The appeal judges disagreed, saying the description was not inflated in the way the High Court deemed, and that Ms Thomson could not have been wholly naive as to the conventions of cataloguing. “There was in fact no reliable evidence to support a contrary view of Christie’s cataloguing,” they concluded. They further argued that Christie’s had had no reason to doubt the authenticity of the urns and, under the circumstances, taking into account their duty of care to her as a special client, they had advised Miss Thomson correctly.

“If Christie’s reasonably held this certain and definite opinion, it is difficult to see how they were obliged to express anything other than confidence to Ms Thomson,” the judges said. The Appeal Court also ruled that “the judge found in Ms Thomson’s favour, although he rejected her pleaded case in its entirety”.

In the end, with the Appeal Court praising the thoroughness of Mr Justice Jack’s scientific investigations, Ms Thomson had bought museum-quality objects, of at least close value to what had been catalogued.

“Ms Thomson was indeed a special client, but the services offered to special clients were generically the same as those available to any potential buyer,” said the Appeal Court. To rule otherwise would be to create a two-tier level of service in favour of richer clients.

Most damningly to Ms Thomson’s plea – and most reassuringly to auctioneers up and down the land – was the Appeal Court’s conclusion that “it is obvious to any buyer, whether expert or not, that attributions as to date and views [and] as to quality are matters of opinion and judgment”.

In allowing Christie’s appeal and dismissing Ms Thomson’s counter appeal, the Appeal Court also refused Ms Thomson leave to have the matter referred to the House of Lords.