Thursday, June 21, 2012

Tartan toff's tiara turns up at Turnbull's

If your valuable jewellery got lost at Glasgow Airport, what would you do? You'd register it as stolen with the airport authorities, wouldn't you? You'd probably even leave your name and address which, if you were a member of an aristocratic Scottish clan with a noble pile in the Highlands, would doubtless be pretty memorable to whoever was taking down your details. "Inverarary Castle? How are you spelling that, Ma'am?"

What would you do then? Well, you could go home and weep into the ancestral quaich. Or you might do the sensible thing and register the lost jewels with a company that keeps a database of stolen objects in the hope that if the jewels are ever consigned to an auction, the auction house will be one of those that submits its catalogues to the same company that keeps a database of stolen objects, one of whose duties is to cross-check auction catalogues against the database of stolen objects in order to recover any items that have been registered as stolen that subsequently find their way into an auction. That process is called doing Due Diligence.

Simple, yes? Well, apparently not, Jimmy.

The Duchess of Argyll (above) lost £100,000 worth of jewellery at Glasgow airport in 2006, including a diamond tiara and a Cartier brooch. Incredibly, on finding the jewels some time later, Glasgow Airport Authority did what you'd expect an irresponsible agency to do — they sold them. No, apparently they didn't check with the databases of stolen objects to check whether the jewels had been registered as missing. They just flogged them. That is called failing to do Due Diligence.

Six years later, the eagle-eyed Duchess spotted one of her family baubles — a Cartier brooch — in the catalogue of a jewellery sale taking place at Edinburgh auction house Lyon & Turnbull. That is what's known as A Stroke of Luck.

Lyon & Turnbull are a responsible and widely respected firm of auctioneers. It is unclear why they accepted the stolen objects for sale, but it seems likely that whoever consigned them was what is often called "a good faith purchaser" — that is someone who at some point had bought them from someone else assuming that the "someone else" had good title to them (i.e. was legally entitled to sell).

What seems unclear is whether Lyon & Turnbull submit their catalogues to a company that conducts Due Diligence by cross-checking the catalogues against a database of stolen objects (a phone call to Lyon & Turnbull today asking if the firm submitted its catalogues for Due Diligence checking elicited a baffled response. "I don't even know what that is," said the spokesperson. "It means absolutely nothing to me.")

If Lyon & Turnbull do submit their catalogues for provenance checking (I want to assume they do), it seems it may not have been the same database with which the Duchess registered her stolen jewellery in 2006. Had it been, a match would have emerged and the auctioneers would have been alerted earlier in the process.

Still, at least the Duchess got her jewels back and didn't have to pay any associated fees to do so. After all, it was she who spotted them in the auction catalogue, rather than the database company with which she originally registered them as missing.

A happy ending, then. That calls for a large glass of the finest Argyll single malt. A Lagavulin will do nicely.

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