Revealed: Fine wine investment firm drains ‘millions’ from clients
An exclusive db investigation uncovers the full story behind London-based fine wine investment consultants APW Asset Management, and the clients that have invested millions with next to nothing in return.
APW Asset Management was set up to persuade UK investors to invest in Australian wine, with the company promising that healthy profits could be made in a short space of time on cases of wine purchased through them.
However, the company is facing liquidation, as db learns that a firm named Quantuma – which was approached to take over London-based APW at the end of 2014 – is unable to put it in administration due to the “uncertainty of the situation”.
Speaking to numerous clients, industry figures and companies close to APW’s operations as part of an exclusive db investigation, we can reveal:
- APW has links to Sydney, Australia in the form of a failed investment scheme named Australian Portfolio Wines, as well as other fine wine flops.
- Unsuspecting clients were lured in by ‘aggressive’ techniques and ‘cold-calling’ that promised ‘wildly overestimated’ returns on wine.
- APW were the sole UK importers for many of the wines they advised clients to buy, giving the company a double-profit and free-reign when it came to valuations.
- Some clients invested tens of thousands of pounds, and got ‘less than half back’. One client we spoke to invested £100,000 but has got nothing in return.
- Client’s wines are now trapped in storage with auctioneers (drafted in to help clients recover their investment) left to clean up the mess. One insider told us, ‘There could be up to £25 million involved’.
- Some APW employees have moved on to a new investment firm, UK Agora, who are calling clients saying they can help them with their APW wine after they purchase new wine through them.
- City of London Police is ‘assessing the case’.
Potentially several thousand cases are locked in warehouses while clients – and the numerous auctioneers and wine trading websites willing to help – are left seemingly stranded.
The wine has been locked in storage as Quantuma, the company-restructuring firm brought in by APW unexpectedly in December 2014, attempts to clear debts rung up by the company throughout its decade-long existence in the UK.
However, db learns that Quantuma are likely to recommend complete liquidation of APW. This hasn’t been confirmed to db, despite several attempts over many weeks to speak directly to the company.
London City Bond (LCB), the wine storage firm used by APW, is owed “substantial” fees from APW, according to one client who contacted db. We have also learned, from a former APW employee, that the figure owed to LCB could be around “six-figures”.
LCB have confirmed that they are indeed owed money from APW and have blocked its clients’ wine from release until a resolution can be found.
Meanwhile, former APW salesmen are calling their old clients on behalf of a new company called UK Agora, suggesting that they can assist by taking responsibility of their wine and advising that more wine be purchased through this new company.
Clients have been in touch with the police, who have confirmed to db that APW is being “assessed” by the City of London National Fraud Intelligence Bureau, who will report back to the supposed victims by the middle of this month.
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The deadlock comes after years of what one client called “purposeful negligence” on the part of APW.
We understand that APW’s clients, many of whom bought incredibly large stocks of wine, were charged vastly inflated prices on the promise of large secondary returns in a short space of time.
Clients tell us they were also charged management fees, while APW would not sell on their wine even when instructed to do so.
One investor, who wished to remain anonymous, told us that when he asked APW to sell on part of his wine collection, the company argued that the particular set in question “wasn’t doing very well right now… They would say that 99% of my other wines were looking very promising, but I should hold out longer.”
All the while, APW would allegedly accrue storage fees that were meant to be passed on to LCB. Additionally, other “management fees” were issued to clients.
One anonymous source contacted db with a damning judgement of APW and its practices. They said, “This is a scam and has been going on for years. If you’ve invested in this, it’s likely that all you will ever have received is some form of share certificate that is completely worthless.”
‘Wild’ market appraisals
APW would pitch wines to clients as “rare, boutique labels” that command high plaudits from top critics. But the brands, while not being mass-market, were far from rare.
Insiders have told us that APW promoted an invented correlation between good critics’ scores and secondary market potential to convince clients into parting with their cash.
An appraisal document passed on to us by a source close to the company lists wine producers like Two Hands, Kay Brothers, Torbeck, The Colonial Estate and Standish. These wines regularly command 90+ Parker points, but their consistent production rates and widespread exposure in the market keeps their secondary value relatively low.
However, the market appraisals show vastly inaccurate secondary market values for the wines, with some “global guide prices” significantly higher than the true market price.
These appraisals also show the high purchase prices that clients had to pay for the wines in the first place.
We showed this market appraisal to the wine trade tracking company Liv-ex, who compiled a spreadsheet that highlights the live trading prices for some of the Australian wine brands that APW had been pitching to clients.
The Liv-ex figures, which are based on cases of six bottles, show a vast difference between what the wines are capable of achieving on the market and what APW were telling their clients.
Trading price figures from online auction site BidForWine.com also illustrate the large disparity between APW’s valuations and what the brands were actually selling for on the open market.
For example, Lily’s Garden 2007 was sold to clients by APW at £25.96 per bottle at the time this appraisal was issued. In order to release the wine from bond to sell on, clients would need to pay duty of £2.73 (the wine 16.5% abv, so falls in to the ‘fortified’ band for duty purposes) plus VAT of £5.74 (20% on £25.96 plus £2.73) – making a total tax bill of £8.47.
This takes the price that clients would need to achieve to break even, after the wine is released from storage, to £34.43 per bottle.
Looking at BidForWine.com’s publicly available trade price histories, their last sale of this wine, in November 2014, was at £10 per bottle excluding duty and VAT – £15.28 inclusive of tax and VAT for a buyer to take it from bond.
Thus, APW sold the wine to their clients at just under 250% higher than what it was achieving on the open market.
In short, db understands that APW were importing some of these wines at wholesale prices, selling to clients at above even retail prices by promising vastly inflated returns, claiming management fees, building up storage charges, and discouraging clients from selling on the wine.
Furthermore, because VAT and excise duty – which clients need to pay in order to release the wine from bond – is calculated using the inflated purchase prices rather than the true market value, clients were reluctant to further demolish their return by pushing APW to release the overpriced wine for sale.
Efforts were made to contact APW Asset Management, but no one from the company could be reached.
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Auction houses and websites separate from APW’s operations have been offering to help clients release their wine from storage to sell on – the last option for making back any money on their initial inflated investments.
One auctioneer, James Baker of Birmingham-based sellers Biddle & Webb, told db, “many clients of APW felt they had been poorly advised over many years and approached Biddle & Webb for help and assistance. We gave them a solution and advised them every step of the way in the sale of their Australian Wine portfolio.”
On APW’s business tactics, Baker mirrored the sentiments of the company’s clients. He said, “It is a sad fact that there are many so-called Investment companies within the UK who promise returns within the wine trade that are impossible to achieve. Biddle & Webb will continue to offer APW clients a clear exit strategy and an end to their association with APW.
“It is our hope that the relevant authorities will be able to prevent this from happening again. Something needs to be done.”
Lionel Neirop, of BidForWine.com, has also been offering to help clients release their wines to sell. He said, “APW’s business practices were always open to question. They were the UK importer for most of the wines they sold for investment so the independence of their advice was suspect.
“The biggest issue was always going to be the quantities involved though, as they were selling thousands of cases of most wines to investors but the pool of drinkers who would buy the wines at the prices projected was always going to be much smaller.
“The company must have known this and all their ‘market appraisals’ were extremely heavily caveated to the effect that their valuations were unlikely to be met if sold via auction or wholesale – pretty much the only routes available for anyone wanting to move the quantities involved.”
Administration and Shady History
Clients were sent into panic in December 2014 when, without warning, they received a letter from APW that relinquished their responsibility for clients’ wines.
In the letter, APW blamed the death of one of their suppliers, the 2008 recession, and a move into “Bordeaux and Tuscan wines” for their decision to fold the business.
The letter was signed by one C. Maduabuchukwu, who, according to companycheck.com, officially joined the APW board in September 2014.
Our research has found no links between him and the world of wine or wine trading, and an investigation into one client’s claims by the respected investigative journalist Tony Hetherington instead places Maduabuchukwu in Bermuda.
Maduabuchukwu replaced a Mr Enzo Giannotta on the APW board – Giannotta being a former salesman at The Wine Index, a wine trading company that was ordered to fold by the High Court in 2003 because of its “scamming tactics”, according to Hetherington.
And research carried out by wine fraud investigator Jim Budd on APW’s Sydney-based forebear, Australian Portfolio Wines, is cause for more suspicion.
He writes, “Roland Charles Pibworth, a significant shareholder in the company… was a director of Bouvier Ltd, a short-lived Champagne investment scam, as was his son Spencer Gene who was previously one of the House of Delacroix’s [a “fraudulent” Dutch Champagne seller] most successful salesman.”
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Clients have accused the APW salespeople, who styled themselves as “portfolio managers”, of “incredibly aggressive sales tactics”.
One of these APW employees, a Jamie Ellis, has recently been contacting APW clients from a new company called UK Agora.
We have been informed that Ellis, along with others, is offering his own former APW clients help in releasing their wines from storage. This is despite LCB confirming that they are frozen.
One former client, Brian Harris, said, “I have been approached by UK Agora who tell me they can get my wine out of LCB [the storage company] before the administration takes effect.
“Then [only] after I buy wine through them, [would they] sell my APW holding.”
However, according to social media and our sources, Gibbs also worked for APW Asset Management, although he did not mention this when we contacted him to discuss Ellis.
He said it was “hugely positive” that Ellis had previously worked for APW as he then knows what clients are going through – even though it was Ellis and himself, among others, that approached them as APW salesmen in the first place.
Gibbs said that Agora was passing a “genuine olive branch” to APW clients, advising them to move their wine into their administration and keep it in storage for longer.
He also said that LCB were owed a “six-figure sum” for storage, confirming that APW – his and Ellis’ own former company – “weren’t passing on their storage charges”.
Gibbs denied that Ellis would offer help in releasing his clients’ wines, as he feels that taking them out of storage now would “flood the market”. Instead, UK Agora is recommending they be put in charge of APW clients’ wines.
In a further email from Gibbs, he said of the APW client contacted by Ellis, “I understand that the client in question feels as though he has been mislead by APW and as a result is understandably concerned when contacted by one of our sales team.
“As explained by Jamie, we are happy to assist people in the disposal of their wines. For clients who have purchased through UK Agora we charge 5% when selling wines on that we did not recommend. Any wine purchased through UK Agora is sold on commission free as clients have paid a brokerage to us up front. Should somebody not be a UK Agora client we will charge 15%.
Addressing the fact that his he and his team are suggesting they buy more wine through them, he said, “Clients are understandably a priority for us so therefore depending on the size of an individual’s portfolio; it may be more profitable to come on board with a small purchase to receive the full benefits of our service.”
He concluded, “At UK Agora we pride ourselves on the service we deliver. We advise all clients to hold their wines within a private account so should companies go into administration or liquidation the client’s purchases are safe.”