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Lord Coleridge vs. Sotheby′s: the appraiser′s duty of care

Published on 8 May 2012 at 13:40

The High Court of Justice in the UK on 1 March 2012 ruled that Sotheby's were not negligent in appraising and valuing a judicial collar as late as 17th century rather than a Tudor jewel. The case sheds light on the extent of an appraiser's duty of care.

 

Background

The Claimant in this case, Lord Coleridge, is the former owner of a judicial collar ("Coleridge Collar") which formed part of the regalia of the Chief Justice of the Court of Common Pleas. The Court of Common Pleas until 1873 was one of the (then still separate) principal courts of common law; it was concerned with actions between subjects particularly relating to land and debt issues. The Court in 1873 became a division of the High Court of Justice, that was later merged into one Queens Bench Division.

John Duke 1st Baron Coleridge ("Lord Coleridge CJ") was the last Chief Justice Common Pleas. The judicial collar was accepted as being the personal property of the office holders, rather than being an "office-loom". Lord Coleridge CJ thus retained his collar, which then passed to each Baron by succession until 1962, when it was given to Lord Coleridge (Claimant in the present case) by his father.

 

In 2006, Lord Coleridge was considering selling the Coleridge Collar. Lord Coleridge approached Sotheby's with a view to appoint them to act on his behalf in the sale by auction.

 

Sotheby's senior specialist in the Sculpture and Works of Art Department at the time valued the Collar for auction estimate purposes at between £25,000 and £35,000, taking the view that the chain was probably manufactured in the late 17th century. The Court considered (§18) that until Sotheby's appraised the Collar, the family's understanding had been that King Henry VII had given the Coleridge Collar to the first Chief Justice of Common Pleas during his reign between 1485 and 1509 and that it had passed from office holder to office holder thereafter. Sotheby's appraisal and auction estimate was a bitter disappointment to the family, and not least for Lord Coleridge's daughter who had hoped that the value of the Collar would be such as to enable the sale of her home to be avoided or postponed.

 

In November 2006, Lord Coleridge sold the Collar for £35,000 through a private sale, upon advice by Sotheby's, to Mr. and Mrs. Norris, who purchased the house and wanted the chain with it.

 

Two years later, on 6 November 2008, Mr. and Mrs Norris onsold the Coleridge Collar at an auction conducted by Christie's for £260,000. Christie's gave an auction estimate of between £200,000 and £300,000 and opined that the Coleridge Collar dated from the Tudor period. Under the heading "Provenance" it said that the Collar had possibly been given by Henry VIII to Sir Edward Montagu between 1546-7.

 

Lord Coleridge sued Sotheby's claiming damages for losses alleged to have been suffered by him as a result of a breach of duty by Sotheby's by advising him to sell the Collar to a private buyer for a price of £35,000. He claimed that if the appraiser Elizabeth Mitchell (now retired) had spent more time studying his chain, it would have earned a much higher estimate.

 

Judgment

In the judgment, HH Judge Pelling QC held (§23-24) that an enormous amount of technical evidence has been deployed in the course of the trial that has focused on whether the Coleridge Collar was manufactured in the late 17th century (as is Sotheby's position) or on a date unknown prior to 1576 (as is Lord Coleridge's case). Judge Pelling added that in his judgment, however, much of this is immaterial to the issues that need to be resolved. The sole question to be answered, is, according to Judge Pelling, whether Lord Coleridge has proved that the advice that he was given and which he acted upon was advice that no reasonably competent appraiser or valuer working for an international auction house at the date when the advice was given could have arrived at having regard to the material that was in the circumstances reasonably available to such an appraiser. In the words of Judge Pelling: "If a respectable body of such professionals would have reached the conclusions passed to Lord Coleridge by reference to that material then the claim must fail even if there were other who would have reached a different conclusion."

 

One of the key elements of Lord Coleridge's case is his contention that the Collar should have been assayed, or he should have been advised that it should be assayed, before a conclusion could be arrived at as to its date of manufacture.

 

Judge Pelling held that the evidence of this case (including a vast number of expert testimony by witnesses heard over the course of a number of days) satisfies the Court that a responsible body of appraisers in the position of Sotheby's senior specialist would have proceeded without seeking an assay of the Collar or advising that it be obtained before expressing a concluded view as to its age. And (§101): "The reality is that a responsible body of appraisers in the position of [the senior specialist] would have appraised the Collar as she did by reference to the historical context, the portraiture and literary evidence and by the craft techniques used in its manufacture of and to the extent that could provide assistance."

 

Lord Coleridge lost his case. The judge did rule, however, that Sotheby's should have told him that in a private sale it is usual to double the lower auction estimate; he therefore ought to have asked Mr. and Mrs. Norris to pay £50,000 rather than £35,000. Lord Coleridge was therefore awared compensation of about £20,000. But because he lost the case, Lord Coleridge was ordered to pay legal costs, reportedly estimated at £1m.

 

Remarks

This case sheds light on the extent of the appraiser's duty of care in appraising works of art. The judgment makes reference to the available historical context, the portraiture and literary evidence and by the craft techniques. The High Court establishes that an appraisal need not entail a guarantee of the nature of the object, but an appraisal on the basis of an opinion that is considered reasonably acceptable among the relevant practitioners.

 

Link to the judgment [2012] EWHC 370 (Ch)

 

See also coverage in:

The Economist: "The art of auction valuation, Matters of Opinion"

The Antiques Trade Gazette: "Sotheby's not negligent over Coleridge"

Art History News: "Why you should always get two auction estimates"

 

 

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