t's the kind of error that ranks up there with the top fears of every business - a routine, nuts-and-bolts mistake that's as easy to make and hard to catch as it is expensive and embarrassing.

A spokesman for Sotheby's confirmed to reporters last week that porters at its London operation had accidentally destroyed a valuable art work by a modern British artist.A study by painter Lucian Freud had arrived in a protective wooden case. Apparently thinking the work had been removed, the workers put the case into a garbage crusher. Unfortunately for them, their employers and the owner, the painting was still inside.

The auction house declined to identify the work or the owner, although it said full reimbursement would be made. It was likewise mum on what will happen to the workers, except to say they had not been fired. Steps would be taken to keep such a thing from happening again, it declared.

Press accounts put the value of the piece at between $160,000 and $240,000. But no one tried to put a dollar value Sotheby's embarrassment, or the damage to its good name.

If nothing else, the incident should serve as a graphic reminder to every organization of how easy it is for simple mistakes to occur anywhere in a process - and how important it is to recognize that and take every possible step to prevent them.