Fake auction helps solve crime; It was the auction that never was, as police tried to solve the theft of £30,000 of paintings and pottery from the collection of Suffolk artist Bernard Rooke

Art enthusiasts filled the auction rooms at Gaze and Son in Diss, each hoping to pick up one of the 34 pieces of his work being auctioned off.

But people soon began to realise that, no matter how high they bid, a telephone bidder always beat them. And as each piece fell to the art collector on the phone, those in the room began to laugh among themselves and make wild bids which all failed.

It was later revealed police had taken custody of the paintings, none of which had actually been sold. And a man was arrested on Friday in connection with the affair.

“It was surreal, a very strange auction,” said Rooke fan Steve Skippings, from Essex, one of the bidders.

“We got to the auction early and the police were there but left before the auction started – but once it got under way it soon became clear that things were not going as expected as, no matter what people in the auction room bid, the person bidding by telephone outbid them.”

He added that after the auction, on February 9, he emailed Mr Rooke to congratulate him that his work was so popular. “Mr Rooke called me back and told me that the work that was in the auction had been stolen,” said Mr Skippings.

“It is now clear to me that the auction was just an act so as to not alert the vendor of the Rooke artwork that something was wrong.”

Mr Rooke, 69, from Swilland, near Otley, said it was only when he saw the auction catalogue, sent to him by Gaze, that he realised the paintings had been stolen. He added: “Between 70 and 80 pieces have been taken from my personal collection which I have been amassing for some years. I would estimate they are worth between £20,000 and £30,000.

“The work was never for sale – it was a record of work of various techniques etcetera. It was being stored in my old studio while a new one was built.”

Gaze spokeswoman Elizabeth Talbot said the firm was only alerted that something was amiss when the police arrived shortly before the sale started.

“They came here to seize them but realised some were delicate and that they had no suitable packaging, so they left with the instruction that we were not to sell them to anybody. And no money changed hands,” she added.

With 550 lots of post-war modern design art, including other works by Rooke, it was decided to go ahead with the sale as normal but for Gaze to secretly “buy back” the 34 pieces whose ownership was in dispute. Other telephone bids were authentic.

“It was a tough call, and I was on tenterhooks. We wouldn’t have wished to mess anyone around; we were acting on police instruc-tions not to enable the paint-ings to disappear. The worst thing that could have happened is that, if we hadn’t acted quickly, the paintings were scattered. In effect, we were buying them back for the true owner,” said Ms Talbot.

“Ironically, it was easily the best sale of this kind we have had, with bidders from London and Scandinavia. Everything was fine except for this weird situation with 31 lots that, as it turns out, were probably spurious.”

Police said a 31-year-old Ipswich man had been arrested and released on police bail pending further inquiries.