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Art dealer fined £5,000 for duping watercolour customer

PUBLISHED: 15:06 17 December 2009 | UPDATED: 16:37 07 September 2010

An art dealer who passed off cheap prints as expensive watercolours has been ordered to pay nearly £10,000 in fines, costs and compensation by magistrates, in a prosecution believed to be the first of its kind under new consumer protection laws. Michael

An art dealer who passed off cheap prints as expensive watercolours has been ordered to pay nearly £10,000 in fines, costs and compensation by magistrates, in a prosecution believed to be the first of its kind under new consumer protection laws.

Michael Walker, 59, who runs an upmarket gallery in Marylebone, was handed the substantial penalty by City of Westminster magistrates' court after it heard a 100-year-old painting bought by an unsuspecting customer for £450, was in fact a copy worth no more than £10.

And when the 65-year-old victim went to confront the gallery he saw a second similar painting in the window, which the gallery owner later told undercover trading standards officers from Westminster Council was also an original watercolour - but which turned out to also be a cheap print.

It later transpired that Walker, whose shop in Devonshire Street, called Michael Walker Fine Art, was thought to have obtained seven copies of the painting, a majestic sunset over Sienna, Italy, from 1900 by the artist R.H Wright.

Walker, of Ellerdale Road, Hampstead, who had 26 years experience in art dealing, was fined £5000 after pleading guilty of breaching the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008 and ordered to pay all the council's costs and compensation to his victim totalling a further £4,642.14.

Westminster Council's cabinet member for community safety, Cllr Daniel Astaire, said: "London is a recognised centre for art and attracts investors from all over the world who know they can rely on the quality and integrity of our galleries. This man's behaviour was seriously misleading and this sentence sends a very clear warning that we will take firm action against anyone who deceives customers and brings London's reputation into disrepute.

"To dupe a customer by passing off a cheap print as a genuine watercolour, like a character out of Only Fools and Horses, is totally unacceptable and will not be tolerated. I'm delighted criminal behaviour like this has been punished and we'll be keeping a very close eye on Mr Walker from now on."

After the prosecution his unwitting victim, who has asked not to be named, said: "I was shocked that such an apparently reputable art dealer could be so underhand, so I'm pleased the court took such a dim view of his behaviour. The frame it was in lifted the whole piece up and helped disguise the fact it was fake. My advice to people would be to never buy a piece of art without seeing it out of its frame. The quality of laser printers is so good these days that you really do need to examine what you are buying closely."

The saga began in October 2007 when the buyer fell in love with a picture of the majestic Sienna sunset, which he thought would make an ideal gift for his wife for Christmas. When he arranged for it to be reframed at a local shop in his home town in Norfolk,the painting's dubious origin was exposed by tell-tales signs such as the quality of the paper and the 'painting' being glued to a separate backing.

Expert evidence submitted to the hearing by a paintings curator at the Victoria and Albert Museum, confirmed that both the customer's purchase and the second copy in the window were both prints worth no more than £10.

Sue Jones, Westminster Council's service manager for Trading Standards, said: 'The integrity of Westminster's reputation as an area to purchase genuine art is very important, and this was a clear attempt to deceive members of the public. We will monitor the gallery to ensure that the artwork is being described correctly.'


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