From The Sunday Times
June 1, 2008
Fake furniture has top auction houses fooled
Alarm among celebrity buyers
Christopher Owen and Jon Ungoed-Thomas
Sotheby's has withdrawn a pair of “antique” commodes from auction in New York this week because evidence suggests they are fake.
The commodes, each fitted with three drawers, were described in the catalogue as “German neoclassical, circa 1800”. The fifth most valuable lot in the sale, they were expected to fetch up to £150,000.
But Dennis Buggins, the Kent-based furniture restorer turned whistleblower whose fake furniture from barn planks and cannibalised antiques has fooled experts around the world, claims they were constructed from old wardrobes.
Buggins, 47, has also identified a number of items sold as antiques by Christie’s that he says were fabricated or significantly altered in his workshop. He claims to have made from scratch a desk described by Christie’s as George IV.
The fakes scandal has caused widespread alarm in Manhattan and Hollywood because many of America’s most prominent decorators buy from dealers who used Buggins. Michael Smith, a Los Angeles interior designer whose client list includes the former supermodel Cindy Crawford and film director Steven Spielberg, is said to have purchased two items of Buggins’s fake furniture.
In April The Sunday Times revealed how Buggins’s £2m farmhouse had for two decades doubled as a production line for mock antique furniture, which had been offered for sale for up to £1.2m per item. “We turned out hundreds of pieces from carcasses or from scratch,” he said.
The catalogue for the Sotheby’s auction on Tuesday features Buggins’s pair of commodes prominently on one of the title pages. They were withdrawn from the sale after Buggins produced a detailed worksheet for this newspaper showing they were built in his workshop in 1993 and 1994.
Alistair Clarke, the worldwide head of English and continental furniture at Sotheby’s, said: “They are convincingly made and with an intention to deceive. They incorporate elements that appeared to be period. I am now sceptical about them and they have been withdrawn pending further investigation.”
Buggins said this weekend: “I’m flattered they were to be auctioned at Sotheby’s. They’re definitely mine. They were made from four or five old wardrobes and cedar from a local timber merchant. Carving the squiggles on the drawers was difficult to get right.”
Since the publication of The Sunday Times investigation, collectors around the world have called in experts to hunt for Buggins’s creations. The New York Times last month described the furniture restorer’s allegation as “deception and audacity on an extraordinary scale”.
John Hobbs, a London dealer who was one Buggins’s main clients, is said to have offered some of the furniture for sale as genuine. Much of Hobbs’s furniture was sold to American clients.
According to The New York Times, Smith, whose clients also include Dustin Hoffman and Michelle Pfeiffer, bought a pair of “antique” commodes that were made by Buggins in 2004 and 2006. While private buyers could hardly be expected to spot the anomalies in Buggins’s works, it now appears that some of the world’s leading furniture experts were also duped.
The commodes offered for sale at Sotheby’s were delivered to the auction house last February and experts concluded they were probably made in Germany by a craftsman who trained in “one of the great London workshops”. Despite having no provenance, they were described as “a fine pair of German neoclassical mahogany commodes, possibly for the Russian market”.
The auction house said it had been contacted by other parties who had questioned whether the commodes were genuine. In spite of this, it was not until The Sunday Times told the auction house of Buggins’s claim that it went back to the vendor and established that the commodes had originally been purchased from Hobbs. The commodes were then withdrawn from sale.
Other items from Buggins’s workshops now believed to have passed through the leading auction houses include “a pair of Spanish silvered clear and blue foil-backed mirrors, 18th century”, sold by Christie’s in New York for $192,000 in May 2005.
Buggins said he had based the mirrors — which featured hexagonal shapes around the frame — on a genuine item. He incorporated old mirror plates, olive wood from a local timber merchant and some old pine.
Two desks sold by Christie’s in London in September 2007 are also said to have been assembled or significantly altered by Buggins. One of the desks, described as “a George IV mahogany partner’s desk”, was made from an old wardrobe.
When the mirrors and two desks were sold, the provenance was merely described by Christie’s as “John Hobbs”. Christie’s said last week there was “no further provenance available to publish” on the items when they were sold.
It added: “Christie’s are reviewing any consignments that may give us cause for concern.”
Buggins is dismayed that his work has been misrepresented — but pleased that his craftsmanship has been passed by experts. “It’s almost as if the auction houses want these items to exist,” he said.
His work has caused significant alarm in New York because one of the city’s most prominent dealers is Carlton Hobbs, John Hobbs’s brother and former business partner. Legal documents from the New York Supreme Court show Carlton Hobbs also had a business relationship with Buggins going back more than two decades.
Carlton Hobbs is now offering clients an “authenticity” service on items he has sold. His firm says that to date it has found possible problems with “less than 1%” of items. It said it had not been involved in the sale or creation of fakes.
Christie’s is currently offering five items of furniture with a Carlton Hobbs provenance at a sale in London on Thursday. Although these items may have gone through Buggins’s workshop, the auction house said it had not attempted to verify them under Carlton Hobbs’s authenticity service. However, Carlton Hobbs insisted it had “every confidence” that the items were genuine.
John Hobbs has denied any wrongdoing or deliberately misrepresenting items manufactured by Buggins.
He resigned from the British Antique Dealers’ Association after it launched an investigation to follow up the allegations in The Sunday Times.
How the scandal unfolded
April 6, 2008 The Sunday Times reports how furniture mocked up by Dennis Buggins, a Kent restorer, has been misrepresented by John Hobbs, a London dealer.
April 7 British Antique Dealers’ Association investigates and suspends Hobbs, who later resigns.
Late April David Wilson, one of America’s most prominent furniture experts, flies to England to inspect private clients’ collections. He says a number of items “gave cause for concern”.
May 22 The New York Times describes the scandal as “deception and audacity on an extraordinary scale”.
May 22 The Sunday Times alerts Sotheby’s in New York that commodes due to be auctioned are alleged to have been made by Buggins. They are withdrawn from sale.
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