Sotheby's in six-figure payout

WORLD famous auction house Sotheby's has paid out what is thought to be a six-figure sum in compensation to a Suffolk family after its experts failed to recognise a lost masterpiece worth millions of pounds.

By James Fraser

WORLD famous auction house Sotheby's has paid out what is thought to be a six-figure sum in compensation to a Suffolk family after its experts failed to recognise a lost masterpiece worth millions of pounds.

The Evening Star can exclusively reveal that the out-of-court settlement brings to a close a long-running legal dispute between the estate of eccentric Suffolk pigswill merchant turned art collector, Ernest Onians, and the prestigious firm of auctioneers, who were being sued for £4.5m.

Executors for the late Mr Onians, who died in 1995, had brought a negligence claim against Sotheby's. They alleged the London-based auction house failed to spot that a painting which for nearly half a century had lain gathering dust in a shed at the millionaire recluse's home near Needham Market was in fact the work of the French 17th century Old Master, Nicolas Poussin.

In a highly embarrassing gaffe the painting was initially attributed to Poussin's pupil, the Italian artist Pietro Testa and was valued at a mere £15,000. When it first came to auction, the bidding soared to ten times that figure. But the work's subsequent sale in 1998 rocked the art world even further after it was identified as Poussin's missing masterpiece, The Destruction and Sack of Jerusalem, and sold for a staggering £4.5million.

The family were unavailable for comment following the deal this week. A spokesman for Sotheby's confirmed that a settlement was reached out of court on Wednesday but declined to give any details about the sum involved.

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Over a period of more than 40 years, Mr Onians amassed a sprawling art collection of more than 1,000 items at his home at Baylham Mill, though the Poussin has turned out to be by far the most valuable piece.

He rapidly gained a reputation for eccentricity, dressing scruffily to throw potential thieves off his scent and wiring his home with DIY alarms made from string and klaxons powered by old car batteries. The publicity-shy man always slept with a loaded shotgun under his bed.

Making his fortune from selling the famous 'Tottenham Pudding' pig feed made from leftovers from the London borough, Mr Onians earned himself the nickname of 'The Pudding King'.

Despite the unflattering moniker, his shrewd business brain enabled him to spot a bargain. He was said to have bought the disputed painting at a country house sale in the 1940s for just £12. When it was authenticated 50 years later as a lost Poussin masterpiece, some art experts reckoned it worth £12m.

After Mr Onians died, aged 90, the work's discovery under a stack of other paintings was considered to be the art find of the decade. Called in to value his collection, Sotheby's thought the painting was Testa's Sack of Carthage and put its value at £15,000.

Yet a London gallery bought the painting for £155,000 after its advisor, leading art historian Sir Denis Mahon aired his suspicions about its true identity after spotting a photograph of it "the size of a large postage stamp" in a catalogue for the auction in 1995. He told the gallery to acquire the work "at any cost".

After it had been cleaned and restored, experts at the Louvre gallery in Paris confirmed it was a Poussin, once owned in the mid-17th century by Cardinal Richlieu, the powerful French statesman. It then disappeared for 350 years until it resurfaced in Mr Onians' ramshackle outhouse.

Jewish philanthropist Sir Jacob Rothschild and the Rothschild Foundation bought the painting in 1998 for £4.5million and donated the work to the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, where it now hangs.

After this headline-grabbing sale, the family of Mr Onians – pronounced Oh-Nigh-ons – began legal proceedings against Sotheby's, setting in motion a chain of events that led to this week's record pay-out.


Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665) was a French neo-classical painter, who was born in Normandy but who lived most of his life in Rome. He took as his subjects mythological and biblical scenes, painting the ancient past as a poetic dream world. The Destruction And Sack Of Jerusalem dates from 1626 and depicts a battle scene based on Josephus Flavius' eyewitness account of the Roman devastation of Jerusalem in 70 AD. It was originally painted to be hung in the palace of Cardinal Francesco Barberini and is the first of two versions of the painting. The other is exhibited in a museum in Vienna.

First thought by Sotheby's to be Testa's Sack of Carthage, a similarly epic scene, details such as menorahs - sacred Jewish candlesticks - began to emerge through the grime as it was cleaned. These were the first signs that it may have been wrongly identified.