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Working Lunch Thursday, 8 May, 2003, 09:15 GMT 10:15 UK
A class of their own
People who dealt with Sotheby's and Christies in the 1990s could be in for a windfall.

In 2000, the two auction giants were found guilty of fixing their client commission rates and breaking US law.

Now some British clients could get compensation as a result of civil proceedings against the auctioneers.

The class action is in the process of being settled.


Although this action is in the US, Sotheby's and Christies clients in the UK could qualify for payment if they:

  • bought items at auction between 1 January 1993 and 7 February 2000
  • sold items between 1 September 1995 and 7 February 2000.

    Working Lunch viewer Peter Amott received a letter notifying him of his involvement in the action and his eligibility for payment.

    Peter Amott
    Peter Amott: Any risk?

    "I had no idea what a class action means, not being conversant with US law," he says.

    And he was concerned whether there was any financial risk in taking part.

    That's understandable, because the procedures in the UK and the US have vital differences.

    United States
    US Flag
    When a US court certifies a "class" in an action, it sends out letters of notification to those involved in order to deal with all the potential claims in one go.

    A class can be one or more named individuals who volunteer to represent a wider group sharing a common complaint.

    This can be thousands or even millions of people.

    Recipients must expressly request to opt out of the action if, for example, they intend to file their own independent claim.

    In this case, Sotheby's and Christies have already agreed to pay a combined lump sum of $40m in settlement of the action against them.


    Those who received letters in the UK need only return details of their financial dealings with the relevant auction house.

    They should receive a proportional payment out of the total pot.

    In any case, claimants in US class actions are well protected and their financial exposure is next to nothing.

    Lawyers represent their clients on a "contingency fee" basis. This means that they absorb the risk factor and only get paid if they win.

    Their payment is a percentage of the financial award made by the court to the claimants.

    In the event of defeat, claimants don't have to pay for the other side's costs.

    United Kingdom
    Union Flag
    Under British law, "group actions" are much more risky for anyone who files a claim.

    British lawyers can be paid on a "conditional fee" basis.

    This means lawyers can agree to waive their fees in defeat, but double their hourly rate if their clients' claim is successful.

    Group claimants should be aware that, unlike in the US, they are still liable to pay the defendant's costs if they lose.

    There is after-event insurance and legal expenses insurance available to cover claimants for this eventuality.

    Legal expenses insurance is available with regular household insurance.

    For more information about the auction house case, you can visit

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