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Audacious multimillion pound wine fraud targetted US doctors

Two UK company directors have been disqualified for 15 years for their part in an ingenious £80m wine and spirit investment scam targeting American doctors.

Following a trial in the High Court, Robin Grove and Richard Gunter, directors of Vintage Hallmark plc were found by Judge Richard Havery to be ‘utterly unfit to be concerned in the management of a company’.

The two were disqualified as directors until December 2021.

Vintage Hallmark plc went bankrupt on 22 January 2003 owing just short of £80m (US$158m).

Of that, over £77m ($152m) was owed to its shareholders – mainly Americans who had been persuaded to swap wine and spirit investments for worthless equity.

They had been induced to make the investments by Vintage Hallmark’s sales team.

Vintage’s imposing shop at 36 St James’s Street, one of London’s most exclusive streets, usefully bolstered the company’s image.

Grove and Gunter along with their partner, accountant David Lamb, who committed suicide on 1 November 2003, started offering over-priced investments in wine and spirits to American doctors, through the Hallmark Partnership, in 1995.

Investors were often guaranteed returns of 40% in as little as three months. However, as they were persuaded to roll returns into ever bigger and better deals, they rarely saw the profits.

On 19 November 2000 Vintage Hallmark Ltd (re-registered as a plc on 27 November 2000) with Grove, Gunter and Lamb as the principal directors, acquired the Hallmark Partnership for £59m ($116m), whose actual assets were estimated by the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) to be no more ‘£5m ($10m) at most’.

Hallmark Partnership had liabilities of £51.8m. However, the directors said that they had assets of £23.8m plus ‘goodwill’ valued at £34.87m. On 6 December 2000 they sent out a share offer for £70m. Most of their American clients were persuaded to swap their investments for shares.

Havery’s judgment describes how in June 2000 a Mr Gordon was persuaded to buy US$50,000 (£25,000) worth of vodka that would be resold for US$90,000 (£45,000) in three months’ time.

Although he was told that his vodka, which turned out to be Cutty Sark whisky, had been sold for the promised US$90,000, Gordon never saw his money.

In the year 1999/2000 Grove and Gunter’s directors’ salaries were around £900,000 (US$1.7m).

David Elswood, head of international wine sales for Christie’s auction house, gave expert evidence to the court.

‘The vast majority of the products offered no interest for potential buyers as they are not those products that form the body of wines and spirits with investment potential,’ he said.

In the very few instances where they might have made a profit Elswood described the price paid by the investors as ‘so ridiculously high that they stood no chance of reselling at a profit’.

For example a case of 12 bottles of Château Latour 1996 was priced at around US$5,500, when its market value was US$1200-1400. Neither Grove nor Gunter challenged Elswood’s evidence.

‘We are conducting an investigation into suspected fraud at Vintage Hallmark plc, although as yet no charges have been laid,’ a spokesman for the SFO (Serious Fraud Office) told decanter.com.

Written by Jim Budd

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