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Decorators in the Haute Seat

A glittering client list and undeniably exquisite taste helped establish Stephen Sills and James Huniford as the hottest design team in town. The mansion they were building for a Philadelphia credit-card king was to be their masterpiece. Instead, it allegedly became an $80 million money pit that has exposed them to charges of price-gouging and shockingly undecorous behavior.

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It was the kind of party one would expect from the most successful interior-design team in New York. Stephen Sills and James Huniford flaunted a dazzling celebrity-client list, inspired glossy-magazine spreads, charged exorbitant fees, and collected Twomblys in their spare time.

In December 1997, Huniford had turned 40, and the partners, at the top of their game, celebrated the occasion with the tasteful extravagance that distinguished all their projects. The vast TriBeCa loft they booked for the event was accessorized with vintage Warren McArthur furniture and illuminated by hundreds of flickering votive candles. A wall of windows afforded a panoramic view of the Hudson. As a frigid wind howled down Vestry Street, guests nibbled on Beluga while male models in white jackets poured endless glasses of Veuve Cliquot.

When the cake was presented, several large television monitors were wheeled out, and on cue Tina Turner's pixelated big hair washed over the screens as the rock diva serenaded Huniford with a soulful rendition of "Happy Birthday." The grand gesture was Turner's way of saying thanks for the work they had done on her house in the south of France -- an effort that was rewarded when the home landed on the cover of Architectural Digest.

But before the evening ended, another client -- far less famous but infinitely more valuable -- delivered his own heartfelt tribute to Sills and Huniford. In the back of the room, removed from the sea of editors, socialites, and design groupies, a tall, distinguished-looking man with a neatly clipped mustache raised his glass and proposed a toast. He was Dennis Alter, the multimillionaire chairman of Advanta, one of the country's largest issuers of MasterCard and Visa credit cards. The kind of client whose net worth would quicken any decorator's pulse.

Alter spoke eloquently of the newfound friendship he and his wife, Gisela, felt so fortunate to have found with the two decorators. He went on to explain that Sills and Ford (nobody calls him Huniford) not only were supremely talented but were the only ones who truly understood his aesthetic vision. Which is why, after an extensive vetting process, he had entrusted them with the 38,000-square-foot dream house he was building outside Philadelphia.

Unless Sills and Huniford made full restitution, Alter warned, he would leak their misdeeds to the press, "make their lives hell," and "put them in jail."

Alter gushed that he couldn't be happier with the results. True, it had been an arduous process -- the project was entering its fourth year -- but with the end nearly in sight, the Alters seemed actually saddened by the prospect of life without Ford and Sills. Glasses were raised to toast this marriage of Manhattan's superstar design team and Philadelphia's premier power couple.

Less than nine months later, the "marriage" -- not to mention friendship -- was in shambles.

On September 11, 1998, the alters summoned Huniford to an urgent meeting. According to court papers, it was not a pleasant one. Dennis Alter went ballistic, charging that Huniford and Sills had grossly inflated the prices of furniture they had selected for his house. According to the Alters' lawyers, the designers had agreed to purchase furniture and fixtures at fair market price and to pass them along with no markup or commission.

Unless Sills Huniford Associates (SHA) made full restitution, legal papers indicate, Alter said he would leak their misdeeds to the press, "make their lives hell," and "put them in jail." Several months later, his lawyers issued an ultimatum: The decorators would reimburse the Alters on the overcharges by March 11, 1999, or face criminal charges.

When no satisfaction was forthcoming, the Alters hired, according to legal papers, "one of the world's leading criminal-investigative firms and forensic accountants to aid in the prosecution of this matter." On July 9, 1999, the couple initiated arbitration proceedings against Huniford and Sills and their corporation, accusing them of fraud, professional negligence, and breach of contract and fiduciary duty. The Alters demanded $6 million in damages, plus interest, costs, and attorneys' fees. Documents filed by the Alters include a list of antiques they claim they overpaid for dearly.

Topping that list was an eighteenth-century Italian Baroque mirror purchased at John Hobbs in London, for which the couple paid $165,020. The Alters had obtained an appraisal that placed the mirror's worth at no more than $43,000, and as little as $20,000. Other items included a pair of French Empire armchairs from a Paris antiques dealer ($36,645), worth, according to the Alters, between $10,000 and $22,000, and a $90,000 Italian chandelier with an appraised value of $30,000.

The Alters contend that furniture from SHA's private inventory was outrageously overpriced as well. According to the Alters, SHA's original asking price for a pair of Italian neoclassical benches (circa 1800), for example, was $130,000; it was offered to them at a "discount" price of $90,000. But a subsequent appraisal obtained by the Alters valued them at no more than $60,000. A German rococo-style side table priced at $290,000 was later appraised by the Alters at $92,000; the Alters allege that the table was also similar to one sold at auction within the past eighteen months for $78,000. But perhaps the most significant markup alleged by the Alters was that of a mid-twentieth-century T. H. Robsjohn-Gibbings dining table the decorators had priced at $65,000. According to legal papers, a similar table had sold recently at Sotheby's for just $5,750.

The Alters even claim that Sills and Ford butchered one of their pricey purchases: "You surreptitiously reduced the size of an Italian Baroque frame with mirror when it didn't fit in the intended space and then lied about your conduct when confronted with the facts." They also question the authenticity of a pair of Louis XVI side cabinets purchased in Paris. The Alters' lawyers denounce Sills and Huniford as two people whose "actions were driven by greed and corruption."

For their part, SHA's lawyers fiercely dispute the Alters' appraisals, pointing out that valuing a piece of art or furniture is far from an exact science. In other words, who is to say what an Italian Baroque mirror is really worth, chopped or unchopped? The decorators' lawyers claimed they could produce higher appraisals that corroborated the prices charged to their clients.

As for the alleged fake Louis XVI cabinets? SHA's lawyers maintained that the shop that sold them was exceedingly reputable and vouched for their authenticity. However, that didn't prevent the lawyers from offering this disclaimer: "In no case did SHA or its principals vouch for or guarantee the authenticity, antique status . . . or pedigree of any furniture the Alters selected." Given that Sills's reputation is based in large part on his connoisseurship of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century antiques, this escape clause was poorly received, to say the least.


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