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TONY HETHERINGTON: No pictures tell a thousand words

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Tony Hetherington is Financial Mail on Sunday’s ace investigator, fighting readers corners, revealing the reality that lies behind closed doors and winning victories for individuals who have been left out-of-pocket. Discover learn how to contact him below. 

K.P. writes: Have you ever come across Smith & Partner Limited, referred to as S&P Gallery? 

It cold-called my elderly and semi-literate stepfather and convinced him to purchase £17,000 of art that’s held in storage and which he cannot access. 

Tony Hetherington replies: Smith & Partner and its online art business throw up much more questions than answers. It sells limited edition prints as investments, but refuses to elucidate how a few of its claims can possibly be true. Your stepfather says that after his initial investments, the corporate told him his original purchases had rocketed in value by £3,000 inside weeks. 

Cold call: Smith & Partner Limited is owned and run by Luke Sparkes (pictured) – and one in all the artworks

He was persuaded to place in more cash, almost £7,000. I asked Smith & Partner to say which prints had shown a £3,000 profit in such a short while, however it offered no answer. 

You may think your stepfather could take his prints to a professional art expert and get them valued, but this will not be as easy because it might sound. S&P advertises that customers can ‘own a rare asset and display it’. And its terms and conditions say the worth includes delivery. But when your stepfather raised this, he says that S&P replied that his prints should be held in storage. 

Your stepfather handled two different salesmen at S&P, and insists that each assured him the corporate could resell prints inside about five days. But when he asked for sales to be made, nothing happened. And that was 4 months ago, not five days. 

So why should anyone put money into the primary place? Well, in line with S&P, investors could make ‘potential returns of as much as 64.6 per cent in only 12 months’. It is a very precise figure, but where does it come from, and which of S&P’s prints has shown such an enormous profit in such a short while? I did ask, but S&P is not going to say.

The reply might be that this and other claims are simply false. Outrageously, S&P actually tells customers to not rely by itself claims. Buried in its terms and conditions is a warning that ‘promoting produced by us…shall not form a part of the contract or have any contractual force’. 

In a nutshell, S&P believes it will probably make false claims and at the identical time tell investors to not imagine them. I might like to see this tested in court. 

And this will not be the one trap in the corporate’s terms. They reveal that prints are stored in Zurich, Switzerland, with charges after the primary yr starting at £150 a yr and rising to £2,500. S&P also claims the suitable to extend fees according to inflation. If a customer fails to pay upfront, the corporate claims the suitable to seize the prints and sell all of them all over again, at any price it likes, with no liability. 

The truth is, S&P is on shaky ground itself, in line with its own accounts. Latest records show that the taxman issued a requirement for £338,780 which S&P contested. However it admits that if the taxman wins, the firm’s total bill might be £2.5million. Would S&P survive this? And the way would customers get their prints if the corporate collapsed? I asked each questions, but S&P did not answer either of them. 

Smith & Partner Limited is owned and run by Luke Sparkes, 31, and at the corporate’s last accounting date he personally owed the business £459,038. Has he repaid this? I asked, but he wouldn’t answer. 

And this will not be Sparkes’ first time on this business. He previously ran an organization called Sovereign Antique Collections Limited, describing himself as dealing in high quality art and antiques. Soon after he quit as director, it went bust.

Investing in prints will not be regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority or every other watchdog. So what to make of S&P’s claim that ‘advantages of using our art investment service include: Regulated by the Positive Art Guild so guaranteed provenance’?

It is a real, legitimate organisation whose full title is the Positive Art Trade Guild. However it will not be a regulator, and S&P will not be even a member. Chairman Mark Wallington told me: ‘The Guild received quite a few complaints about Smith & Partner. After making interventions on behalf of consumers and reminding their directors of the requirement to abide by the Guild’s code of ethics, we concluded that they had little interest in doing so.’ 

S&P was expelled from the Guild last June. Its continued claim to membership is a lie. 

VAT chaos means I can not feed my family!

S.D. writes: I write in desperation. I run a small business in Shropshire and have needed to register for VAT to sell on eBay. I applied to HM Revenue & Customs and was issued a VAT number, but eBay told me it was not valid. 

I even have lost count of how persistently I contacted the Revenue helpline. Everyone blames another person. I even have used just about all my savings. 

I’m on the verge of being kicked out of my property. I cannot feed my family. And no person seems to care. 

Hit in the pocket: S.D. applied to HM Revenue & Customs and was issued a VAT number

Hit within the pocket: S.D. applied to HM Revenue & Customs and was issued a VAT number

Tony Hetherington replies: The Revenue has a web site which allows anyone to examine whether or not they are being charged VAT by someone who’s using a fake VAT number. After I entered your number, it immediately got here up as not valid. I contacted Revenue officials and so they confirmed your number was accurate. 

Staff then called you and explained learn how to print out your VAT certificate. But after I checked online – as eBay would – the number still flashed up as not valid. You might not be alone in suffering as the subsequent call you received from the VAT office was to inform you there was a ‘repair’ due. 

I went back to Revenue officials and this time it worked. One apologised and explained: ‘We now have now rectified the problem which was on account of an administrative error.’ You told me: ‘I even have been on cloud nine all day – it’s such a relief that this has been lifted off my shoulders.’ 

In the event you imagine you might be the victim of monetary wrongdoing, write to Tony Hetherington at Financial Mail, 2 Derry Street, London W8 5TS or email tony.hetherington@mailonsunday.co.uk. Due to high volume of enquiries, personal replies can’t be given. Please send only copies of original documents, which we regret can’t be returned. 

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