Allegations of £1m fraud send top wine merchant into receivership

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The Independent Online

A fine wine merchant has gone into receivership after an alleged fraud involving the unauthorised sale of more than £1m worth of prestigious clarets and Burgundies from its cellars.

Police are expected to launch an inquiry next week into the collapse of Mayfair Cellars, based in Fulham, west London, which called in Grant Thornton, the receivers, earlier this month.

The collapse is likely to send shock waves through London's fine wine merchants, who are entrusted by wealthy customers with looking after millions of pounds worth of wines bought for laying down. According to decanter.com, the wine website which broke the story, inquiries are focusing on one employee who is believed to have been selling wine to two other London dealers, despite the fact that it was owned by customers of Mayfair Cellars and was being stored on their behalf.

The alleged fraud came to light when another member of staff attempted to find a quantity of 1990 Chatêau Cheval Blanc, one of the most sought-after clarets, for a client, only to discover it was no longer in storage. It later emerged that at the same time as the dealers were buying the unauthorised wine, they were also buying legitimately from other members of staff.

The company, which employed six people, notified police and called in the receivers. David Searle, the company's former managing director, said the missing bottles had a replacement value of more than £1.25m. He said: "I am appalled for my staff and the hundreds of private clients who have been caught up in this."

Mayfair Cellars was linked to the Champagne house Jacquesson, which is believed to have held a substantial stake in the company and has now been forced to seek another London outlet. As well as the Cheval Blanc, it is believed that large quantities of cases of other prestigious clarets had been sold without permission from the owners, as well as a quantity of one of the most renowned Burgundies, the Domaine de la Romanée Conti.

It is not known how many customers were affected, or their names, but their losses are likely to be covered by insurers. Buying wine for laying down for both an investment and for consumption is popular with City workers with big bonuses to spend.

Chris Marroni, a spokesman for Grant Thornton, said: "We have carried out a full audit of the company's stock and the stock currently held by third parties. This is almost complete.

"With regards to the losses we believe it is premature for us to make a comment on that. However, it would appear that losses to the company as a result of financial irregularities are substantial."

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