While investing in unusual assets like wine has become more popular in recent years, some local investors claim they have been left high and dry. At least 12 investors, including a doctor and a retired offshore contractor, have each told The Sunday Times similar stories of cold calls, hard sells and no returns.
They invested a total of more than $500,000 with Singapore-based wine investment companies, The Bottled Wealth Holdings (TBW) and Australian Wine Index (AWI), from as early as 10 years ago. Both firms were placed on the Monetary Authority of Singapore's (MAS) Investor Alert List in August this year as complaints grew.
According to the Consumers Association of Singapore (Case), between Jan 1, 2009 and Sept 18 this year, it received 66 complaints against AWI, TBW and Emily's Fine Wines, a retail and wholesale firm linked to TBW. It handled six complaints against AWI and TBW over storage and non-delivery of wine.
An Australian winemaker has also alleged that TBW has been selling his wines without buying them from him. This came to light when retiree Hau Tau Khang, 59, bought some wine from Emily's after a sales call promising three years of free storage and the option to engage TBW's brokerage services.
Mr Guillianno Mata, a Dominican national, is listed as director of Emily's and TBW.
But Mr Hau grew suspicious after requests to view his stock were not met and TBW brokers offered to buy back his wine at a 30 per cent profit if he reinvested. He filed a complaint with the Small Claims Court in May and Emily's was ordered to refund him. He showed The Sunday Times a receipt for 66 bottles of 2013 Hewitson The Mother Vine at $5,400, dated last October.
Yet, Mr Dean Hewitson, owner of the Australia-based Hewitson vineyard and winery, told The Sunday Times that he had not sold any of the 2013 wine to Emily's or TBW then, and that it was impossible for it to have been procured elsewhere as the wine had not been bottled at the time of sale.
Mr Hewitson said he had sold wines to TBW and AWI in the past, but Mr Mata later ceased communications. Mr Hewitson said he had earlier learnt that TBW clients were offered the 2013 wine, which Mr Mata had not discussed with him.
When contacted, Mr Mata insisted he had bought the 2013 wine from Mr Hewitson.
In September last year, the police were called when six investors went to TBW's One Raffles Quay office demanding refunds. Some were investors with AWI, which Mr Mata was still director of at the time.
Investors told The Sunday Times they were offered three years of free storage, and told that brokers would try to re-sell their wines in that time for up to a 30 per cent profit. Most said they have not seen a cent and alleged that they were overcharged for wines that the firms have made little effort to sell.
Some also bought trading agreements stipulating their wines would be bought back at market price if the firms failed to sell them, and said that these deals were not honoured.
While many AWI investors had problems that preceded Mr Mata - starting in 2003, while he bought the firm in June 2013 - they said the issues continued.
When Mr Mata set up TBW in February last year, lines between the firms were blurred as documents bore both logos. Mr Mata said the firms have always been separate. "I bought AWI, a broken-down business, and did my best to save it. If I have 1,000 clients, there will always be a percentage that will be complaining," he said. He sold AWI to its former managing director Alvin Lim this April. Mr Lim declined to comment.
Many of the investors have made police reports and lodged complaints with Case and MAS, but said no action has been taken.MAS said it encourages those seeking investments to deal only with MAS-registered entities to be protected by laws administered by MAS.
Lawyer Amolat Singh said while Mr Hau's situation may amount to fraud, the onus lies with investors to do their due diligence.
Mr Lou Ghirardello, managing director of online retail firm Wine Exchange Asia, said there should be an advisory panel to guide investors. "Something has to happen to protect these poor people, because this same thing has been happening time and time again," he said.
Mr Kueh Yong Say, a 65-year-old retiree, said he is looking for work again after losing hope of getting his investment of $100,000 with AWI back. "It is one of the biggest mistakes I have ever made," he said.