Free - after the 46-year liquidation that wouldn't die

John Willcock
Friday 26 April 1996 23:02

When Rupert Nicholson was appointed liquidator to the London & Eastern Trade Bank on 2 February 1950 he never dreamed that the case would last until this month, 46 years later.

The affairs of the bank appeared to have been fully wound up by 1962, but claimants on its assets kept on popping up - in East Germany, Ukraine, Israel and California. Unexpected assets such as gold bars and share certificates were still emerging in the 1970s. This was truly the liquidation that refused to die.

Mr Nicholson is now 85 and retired from accountants KPMG Peat Marwick. He can take pride in having presided over the longest case in the firm's history - and probably in the UK. One cause of this longevity is that the liquidator is appointed by a court. The liquidator has a legal duty to make an exhaustive search and recover every possible asset and seek out every recorded creditor.

In LETB's case, this included many people from Eastern Europe, where the trade bank did most of its business. By 1962 Mr Nicholson had been able to pay off preferential creditors in full, and unsecured creditors to the tune of 28p in the pound. But there was still a long way to go. Mr Nicholson, who retired to his house in Ashtead, Surrey, started receiving help with the liquidation from a younger colleague, Roger Oldfield, in the 1970s. Mr Oldfield recalls that in the mid-1970s the liquidators tracked down unexpected assets consisting of gold coins, including $20 golden eagles, and gold bars, kept for safekeeping in NatWest Bank's Princes Street office in the City.

"Someone wrote in claiming the gold," Mr Oldfield says. "We went to court for directions on how to treat the assets. They ordered us to advertise in Russia."

It appeared that the person who had the closest recorded links with the gold had had a brother, a Russian who fought on the German side in the Second World War. At first the liquidators wanted to advertise for claimants in East Berlin newspapers, where the brother had last been heard from. But Mr Nicholson decided against it, fearing the revelation that the brother had fought for the wrong side could bring retaliation. They then placed advertisements in West Berlin papers, and drew a response - from California.

A distant relative of the claimant had emerged, and Mr Nicholson and his colleagues had to trawl once again through the documents to decide whether the Californian was eligible for the gold.

Unfortunately, the American then died. That settled it. The gold went into the general pot for all creditors.

Four years later the liquidators were sent ancient company share certificates by a Continental bank that thought LETB owned them. "They were worth tuppence ha'penny and most of the companies had gone bust, anyway," Mr Oldfield said.

It appeared that the case was over, and a final creditors' meeting was convened - for 1 April this year. Such was the age of the case that Mr Oldfield confidently assumed no one would turn up.

"When they told me there was a creditor in reception I thought it was an April Fool's joke," he says. In fact it was an 85-year-old Chinese gentleman, accompanied by his solicitor son, claiming they had received no communication from the liquidator since 1950 and had received no payment.

Suddenly the case seemed to have come alive again. The men from Peat Marwick scrambled though the bank's paper-work one last time - and found that they had already paid the last creditor, a fact he had acknowledged by post. The case was closed: 46 years after his appointment, Mr Nicholson was granted his release.

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