Former advertising tycoon Charles Saatchi on Monday downplayed photographs in which he is shown grabbing his wife, celebrity chef Nigella Lawson, around the neck, saying it was just a "playful tiff."

Britain's Sunday People newspaper published photographs of Saatchi with his hands around his wife's neck, and with her in tears, while they were having dinner on the terrace of a London restaurant.

The 70-year-old multimillionaire art collector was also photographed pinching 53-year-old Lawson's nose before walking away from a seafood restaurant in upmarket Mayfair on June 9.

Saatchi, who writes a column for The Evening Standard, told the newspaper that he recognised the impact of the pictures but said they conveyed the wrong impression.

"About a week ago, we were sitting outside a restaurant having an intense debate about the children, and I held Nigella's neck repeatedly while attempting to emphasise my point," he said.

"There was no grip. It was a playful tiff. The pictures are horrific but give a far more drastic and violent impression of what took place. Nigella's tears were because we both hate arguing, not because she had been hurt."

He said the couple made up by the time they reached home. But he acknowledged that Lawson had moved out, saying this was for her privacy. "The paparazzi were congregated outside our house after the story broke yesterday morning, so I told Nigella to take the kids 'til the dust settled," he explained.

Lawson, known for her home cooking TV shows and cookbooks, could not immediately be reached for comment.

Police told reporters that they were examining the images which were taken by a freelance photographer, but they had not received any complaints about the argument.

Lawson, the daughter of the former Chancellor of the Exchequer Nigel Lawson, married Saatchi in 2003 after her first husband, journalist John Diamond, died of throat cancer.

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