Christopher Owen and Jon Ungoed-Thomas
ONE of Britain’s leading furniture restorers has blown the whistle on the antique trade - revealing that he has fabricated pieces that have been offered for sale for up to £525,000 each.
Dennis Buggins, 48, has revealed that his Kent farmhouse has been operating as a production line for £30m of replica and revamped antiques for more than two decades. He claims he only recently discovered some of his work had been offered for sale as original pieces.
“We have turned out hundreds of pieces from carcasses or from scratch,” he said last week. “They have been misrepresented and a line has been crossed.”
Last week Buggins was offered £200,000 by one of his clients partly on condition that he sign a document claiming all his allegations to The Sunday Times were false. He refused.
One of the principal sellers of Buggins’s work is the London antique dealer John Hobbs, who at one stage was paying about £10,000 a week to the Kent workshop. Buggins said a number of items promoted on Hobbs’s website have been seriously misrepresented. Hobbs denies any wrongdoing. His client list is believed to have included the American billionaire collector Les Wexner, owner of the Victoria’s Secret lingerie label, the Getty family and the New York interior designer Tony Ingrao.
Much of Buggins’s work has been crafted in the exact styles of the great cabinetmakers, including Thomas Chippendale and Christian Meyer, a Russian craftsman.
In testimony to The Sunday Times, Buggins says: He has used barn planks, old furniture and brass mouldings to create or revamp antiques on sale for up to £525,000. He was commissioned to assemble a pair of “18th-cen-tury” commodes from “flat pack” components provided by Hobbs. He used plywood templates of Chippendale desks to make replicas virtually indistinguishable from the genuine item. One of his pieces – described to potential buyers as an Italian “19th-century gilt centre table” – was crafted from an old wardrobe and four old table legs. If it were authentic, it could fetch up to £100,000.
“Most people think 18th or 19th-century craftsmanship is dead, but we’ve been doing it here,” Buggins said last week.
His disclosures will cause ructions at the top of London’s antique market, where pieces can sell for more than £1m. “These pieces are like works of art and collectors insist on originality,” said one antiques expert.
Buggins says his pieces are unlikely to be detected because they are often made by cannibalising parts from genuine but low-priced antiques.
Hobbs is one of his key clients and Buggins said he recently discovered that items assembled or radically altered in the workshop were being described as original on the website for Hobbs’s gallery in Pimlico. Other outlets cannot be identified for legal reasons. Hobbs said an Italian-style table assembled by Buggins was mistakenly put on his website and described as “19th-century”. He said other pieces had been “expensively restored” and he rejected Buggins’s claims that the descriptions would mislead clients.
Hammonds, the legal firm representing Hobbs, said in a statement: “Our client has never dishonestly sold items as genuine antiques which he knew were fakes.” The Sunday Times has no evidence that Hobbs knowingly sold fakes, but he faces allegations of misrepresentation. He denies this.
Georgian furniture 'made from barn planks'
Inside is a now silent production line where up to 30 craftsmen once worked. Unfinished “antiques” lie on the sawdust-covered floors alongside their plywood templates, while laser-cut veneer and ornate brasswork lie in packages waiting to be fixed into place.
The man who headed this highly skilled operation, Dennis Buggins, says his production line has been churning out furniture in the style of the great
cabinet-makers for two decades. He revealed last week that his pieces of furniture had been offered for sale as genuine items for up to £525,000 each
Last week he identified four items recently offered for sale in London and variously described as “Italian, early 19th century” or “George II circa 1740”. He claims these were assembled or revamped at his workshops from materials including old wardrobes, salvaged panelling and barn planks.
“Sometimes I build from scratch or I use an original piece as a blank canvas,” Buggins said last week. “It’s like cladding a building.”
One of Buggins’s main clients has been the prominent London dealer John Hobbs. He strongly denies any wrongdoing or ever knowingly selling a fake.
Buggins began as an apprentice to a Canterbury cabinetmaker at 14, and has since become a successful restorer and architectural salvage expert. His most spectacular purchase was the remnants of the Baltic Exchange, the City building bombed by the IRA in 1992, which he sold to two Estonian businessmen last year for £800,000 and shipped to Tallinn for rebuilding. He also owns the former royal box from Ascot racecourse.
For the past two decades the bulk of his income has been from his furniture restoration business based at his farm, which neighbours the Chilham Castle estate, home of spread-betting tycoon Stuart Wheeler.
Over the years Buggins has specialised in copying the work of the great cabinet-makers, including Chippendale, and Russian craftsmen such as Christian Meyer.
He now claims this work has been seriously misrepresented and described to potential buyers as original antiques. “I would call them inventions or fakes,” he said.
A barn on another farm five miles away was rented to store hundreds of items of period furniture belonging to Buggins and his clients, which provided the raw materials — or “breakers” — for the sophisticated new creations.
A legal dispute with Hobbs forced Buggins to halt work and he is in the process of vacating the farm. Buggins claims he is owed money by Hobbs, but has become so exasperated by the legal battle that he is now exposing what he considers to be the misrepresentation of his work.
In a conservatory office, Buggins showed The Sunday Times pictures on a laptop of how his work has been offered for sale by Hobbs.
- One item is described as “a walnut and parcel gilt centre table, Italian early 19th century”. With the accompanying description, it is estimated it could have fetched £120,000. Buggins said he made it from an Italian wardrobe and four carved lion legs.
- Two mirrors are described as “a pair of looking glasses, George II circa 1740, in the manner of William Jones”. The estimated price for a genuine pair is £100,000. Buggins says he made them from panels, believed to have come from a church, with old mirrors from France. Wings were chopped off the cherubs to make them look less religious.
- A “small mahogany breakfront library bookcase, George II circa 1745” has an estimated price of £100,000. Buggins claims to have created it out of
a plain bookcase. He transformed it with a carved pediment, a band of “Vitruvian scrolls”, mahogany mouldings and rosettes.
- Buggins recently “loaded up” an old desk in Russian-style fittings, including gilded brasswork and new veneer. The desk has recently been offered for sale for £525,000 and described in Hobbs’s promotional literature as a “highly important mahogany desk” probably built in 1790 by the Russian cabinet-maker Christian Meyer.
The British Antique Dealers’ Association, which estimates the annual turnover among its dealers at £650m, says for an item to be sold as antique it should be “in substantially the same condition as when originally made” and “not added to or altered to any material extent”. Hobbs is now expected to face an investigation by the association.
One aspect of the Kent operation is revealed in a fax dated December 4, 2002. In it Hobbs states: “One important thing that I’d like to get going on are the pair of blue painted commodes. I saw in our storeroom that I have most of the components here. They are ‘flat pack’ so shouldn’t be a problem.”
Buggins claims the components he used included wall panelling and wood from an old door. He used the materials to assemble the “18th century” commodes. Hobbs denies this and says the antique commodes were genuine and had only been stored as “flat pack”.
Hobbs said this description was quite proper. “It not infrequently happens that genuine pieces are dismantled and stored in a way that could lightheartedly be described as ‘flat pack’,” he said in a statement.
Among Buggins’s claimed creations were a pair of “Irish sabre leg” commodes. Buggins said they were in fact manufactured from two old wardrobes and newly carved legs.
The commodes were displayed for a time in the gallery of Christopher Gibbs, the bon vivant art collector who is a friend of the Rolling Stones. He said last week that he had looked after the commodes temporarily but had not examined them in detail.
In an “appreciation” written by Gibbs for a Hobbs sale in New York in 2002, he wrote that the dealer’s collection was “constantly replenished with remarkable treasures gathered in from all over the globe”.
A fax written the following year, however, suggested Hobbs was more interested in producing revamped furniture. He wrote to Buggins: “My buying of items that need straightforward restoration will decrease dramatically. However, my buying of lower-priced items that need a great deal of work will be as strong as ever.”
Buggins claims that among Hobbs’s clients were the Getty family, the retail billionaire Les Wexner, and the New York interior designer Tony Ingrao. Ingrao confirmed that he had bought pieces from Hobbs, but The Sunday Times was unable to confirm whether Wexner and the Getty family were clients.
Buggins denies he was party to any wrongdoing, insisting that he was never involved in the sale process. He says he was “absolutely stunned” by the descriptions of his work.
Hobbs says the Italian-style table — which he admits was a replica — was never intended for sale. It was put on his website “by accident” and he still owns it. He says he believed the painted mirrors were genuine and had been restored to their original state by Buggins. He said some “later additions” to the mirrors were removed.
Hobbs also says the George II bookcase was in bad condition which was expensively restored. He denies it was a “radically altered piece”. Hobbs says he bought the original Russian desk for a “six-figure” sum and it required extensive restoration. He believes it was originally made by Meyer and “spent a lot of time sourcing the right veneer and mounts to restore the desk to its former glory”.
Hobbs said last week that he had never “dishonestly sold antiques” which he knew were fakes. The Sunday Times has no evidence that Hobbs has knowingly sold fakes, but it is claimed that he misrepresented to potential buyers items that were fake or substantially revamped. He denies this.
He said he was aware that Buggins made replicas, but they were accurately represented as imitations when sold.
Last week Hobbs’s lawyers offered Buggins £200,000 to settle the dispute on the condition that he sign a two-page statement — which had not been written by him — retracting all the allegations he had made to The Sunday Times. Buggins refused.
Art Hostage comments:
As Jimmy Cricket would say "and there's more, allot more"