Detective Constable Marek Coghill of Scotland Yard’s economic crime unit, said goods worth about £900,000 have been recovered, with £500,000 worth returned to the bilked owners and another £400,000 worth to be auctioned off to reimburse others.
For six years, Marsh passed herself off as a French/Iranian heiress.
Marsh, who went by different aliases, including Madame de Savigny, was actually a 53-year-old divorcée living on an “incapacity benefit”—the British equivalent of the U.S Social Security Disability Benefit—of £80 ($130) a week, claiming she had lymphatic cancer.
Police believe she built up her vast collection of high value goods as a “retirement fund”.
In October 2008, halfway through her trial, she switched her plea to guilty to all 38 charges of fraud, obtaining property by deception and concealing criminal property from auction houses. Marsh was sentenced to six years in jail and began her sentence the next day.
Marsh, who also received income from a family trust fund, had fled Iran in 1978 and was educated in Paris before moving to London after marrying a British property developer.
They divorced in 2001 and Marsh then began to pass herself off as a member of European high society. She dressed the part, spoke fluent French and Farsi and had an expert knowledge of antiques. And despite claiming poverty to get welfare benefits, she had four luxury apartments around London.
Between 2001 and 2007, Marsh used numerous aliases and addresses to carry out dozens of fraudulent plots. Her victims included the auction houses Christie’s and Sotheby’s in London and Beaussant Lefèvre in Paris. In one bold operation, she swindled the Parisian auctioneers Tajan of paintings, sculptures and jewelry worth almost $200,000 during four sales held in 2005. In another remarkable stunt, Marsh duped the auction house of Massol in Paris twice in one week. Her most expensive “purchase” was a diamond ring worth nearly $122,000.
Marsh would scour auction catalogues and store brochures to identify possible targets before calling or writing a letter expressing interest in an item. She would then make personal visits to ingratiate herself with staff. Wearing the diamonds and clothes already stolen from other stores, she was able to build trust with senior sales staff and auctioneers.
She managed to convince her victims of her wealth by paying a check into her own bank account. This would appear briefly as a credit on her statement, but before it bounced she would tell her victims that she needed to have her “purchases” delivered immediately to wear at a high society event the next day. If they insisted that she wait until the check had cleared, she would cancel her order.
But auction houses and jewelry stores weren’t the only ones to fall victim to her schemes. She avoided paying $44,000 in rent on her London apartments by telling landlords the same elaborate stories that she told the auction houses and shops.
Detective Constable Coghill told The Times of London in 2008, “She would drop names and utilize connections she had made in the jewelry world to provide the illusion that she was a trustworthy client, so she could eventually circumvent the normal strict practices.
“She wanted them to think a check from her was as good as cash. Very wealthy people don’t like to be questioned about whether they can support a check. It is a world that largely has to act on trust and she knows how to exploit that trust,” Coghill said.
In 2004, Marsh was convicted of fraud and served 10 months in prison. But police never found the hidden goods and, upon her release, she resumed her scheme. Two years later, police tracked her down again and found her home filled with antiques. Detectives also found a key that she insisted was for the gate to her garden shed. It turned out to be for a safety deposit box that contained jewelry. She was released on bail but arrested again in September 2007 for continuing her scam.
Finally, in February 2008, police discovered a storage locker containing a stash of antique furniture, paintings and jewelry.
Detective Inspector Ella Marriott said, “We may never know how much she has taken. This is her pension fund. She is extremely deceiving and skilful in her endeavors.”
Detectives believe she was planning to hold onto the goods until “the heat was off” and she could sell them to furnish her pension fund and enjoy a luxury retirement.