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Those involved used bogus email addresses and faxes to dupe the auctioneer.

The buyer, Tony Ashworth of Ashworth Antiques in Lancashire, spotted the multi-metal okimono last September in the online catalogue of New Jersey auctioneers Millea Bros. He made a successful bid over the phone securing it at $3800.

As a specialist in Japanese works of art, it was one of his finds of year. The signatures and construction indicated that the object was actually worth many times the purchase price. With a picture of the work with its Japanese designer found in one of the relevant reference books, Mr Ashworth already had serious interest from clients who offered him a significant profit.

The 19in (48cm) high work was engraved with the signature Okayama Shoama Sen to the underside of the base and catalogued: “Signed Japanese mixed metal study of a Lotus – Meiji Period, realistically modelled in great detail and engraved in copper, brass, silver and gold.”

Mr Ashworth arranged to pay by bank transfer and said he would call the following week to check that the funds had cleared. However, during that week, the auctioneer received emails from a “Tony Ashwood”, using a similarly named email address and asking for an invoice to be faxed to them and their American agent. They arranged to pay in cash and collect the item in person. On the agreed date, a man purporting to be the American representative paid the invoice in cash and retrieved the item from the auctioneers’ warehouse. The fraud came to light days later when Mr Ashworth called to check if they had received his transfer.

The auctioneers have offered Mr Ashworth his money back, but he has refused in the hope of establishing his ownership of the object if it ever reappears.

Police Detective J. Haspel is investigating. Tel: 001 973 593 3014, crime ref: 07-15207.