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Seller beware ('caveat venditor'): Coleridge v Sotheby's [2012] EWHC 370 (Ch)

In a case that spanned 500 years of English history, Sotheby's was not negligent in advising that a decorative gold chain forming part of the regalia of the last Chief Justice Common Pleas in 1880 (the Coleridge Collar) was likely manufactured in the 17th as opposed to the 16th century.

The Collar was passed down the Coleridge family line until 2006 when, acting on Sotheby's' advice and valuation, it was sold privately for £35,000. In 2008 it was sold at auction by its new owners for £260,000, on the basis it was manufactured in the 1500s.

Coleridge sued Sotheby's in negligence, claiming that it:

  1. Failed to advise the likely date of manufacture (1500s);
  2. Failed to advise the correct estimate at auction of £300,000-£400,000 and that a private sale should be twice the lowest estimate;
  3. Advised him to sell the Collar for £35,000.

Sotheby's' appraisal was not negligent because a reasonable body of appraisers would have dated the Collar in the same way, taking into account historical context, portraiture and literary evidence and the craft techniques used in its manufacture.

A reasonable body of appraisers would not have undertaken spectrographic analysis, as knowing the fineness of gold would not place the Collar in the period contended for by Coleridge. Additionally, no reasonable appraiser would conclude that it was manufactured in the 1500s based on the casting method used as there is no distinct period when different methods were adopted.

Sotheby's was entitled to take into account that few decorative gold items survived the Civil War, that there was no settled practice of passing collars from office to office before the 19th century and that no portraits show the Collar being worn before the 17th century. Further, the metal's finish did not assist in dating the Collar.

Coleridge's alternative claim that Sotheby's was negligent in advising to sell the Collar for £35,000 was however successful. He should have been advised to sell it for £50,000, in line with auction house practice to arrive at a private sale value by doubling the lowest auction estimate of £25,000. Coleridge was entitled to the difference between the two values.

A note of caution to auction houses and similar businesses − liability could have been reduced or avoided had Sotheby's entered into a contract on standard terms.

/ 1st May 2012


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