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The writ has been issued by the former owner of an extraordinary museum of Victorian taxidermy, who claims the auctioneers failed to inform him of a £1m offer for the collection made by the artist Damien Hirst two weeks before the sale.

John and Wendy Watts, who had owned Mr Potter’s Museum of Curiosities for nearly 20 years, subsequently netted £336,000 from the auctioneers as part of the sale of the contents of the Jamaica Inn in Cornwall back in September 2003.

The dispute surrounds an alleged phone call made to Bonhams by Mr Hirst’s business manager, Frank Dunphy, about two weeks before the auction was held.

Although not naming Hirst, Mr Dunphy is said to have told the auction house his client was interested in purchasing the collection for £1m, which included Walter Potter’s famous anthropomorphic tableaux The Kittens’ Wedding and The Death and Burial of Cock Robin. In the sale both made multi-estimate sums of £18,000 and £23,500 respectively.

An article by Hirst that appeared in The Guardian on the day of the sale claimed that his offer had been turned down because it was made after the deadline had expired. “I have always wanted a museum like this,” he wrote. “But now the collection will go to auction to be sold in separate pieces. I have offered £1m and to pay for the costs of the auctioneers’ catalogues, just for them to take it off the market and keep the collection intact, but apparently the auction has to go ahead. It is a tragedy.”

It had been the Watts’ desire for the collection to stay together. Mr Watts told reporters: “It was stated in the contract that Bonhams would consider every serious offer from potential clients to acquire the whole collection and keep us informed of such interest. This did not happen.

“We have now instructed our solicitors to claim for just under £571,932, the difference in what could have been achieved had the collection been sold as a whole to Damien Hirst for £1m.”

The claim, that Mr Watts hopes to bring to the High Court, says Bonhams were in breach of their contractual obligations and their duties as agents by informing Mr Hirst’s business manager that it was too late to make an offer for the collection as a whole and thereby discouraging an offer for the whole collection.

It is not clear whether Bonhams – who have issued no comment regarding the details of the case – will dispute the content of the alleged phone call or, if such an offer was made, whether it was indeed a serious one.