Mossgreen was losing money for five years before collapse

Mossgreen was losing money for five years before collapse
Mossgreen was losing money for five years before collapse

Auction houses are understandably fielding inquiries as to whether they keep client money in an audited trust account ever since the collapse last December of Mossgreen.

Sotheby’s, Bonhams, Menzies and Deutscher and Hackett say they do – although there is no industry standard.

“Trust accounts should absolutely be a requirement,” Chris Deutscher of Deutscher and Hackett has told The Australian Financial Review.

“The law should be changed, we’ve just seen the reason why.”

The Australian Financial Review Magazine has revealed that Paul Sumner's Mossgreen lost money for five years before it went under last December.

Its client account, where funds from auctions were held before being disbursed to vendors, had a shortfall back to December 2013, it reported this week, having previously reported, in a 2016 Australian Financial Review profile, that Mossgreen's turnover had impressively grown from about $10 million in 2013 to $39.6 million in 2015. 

But the paper now reports Mossgreen’s competitors – Sotheby’s, Deutscher and Hackett, Menzies, Bonhams – had for years "wondered how the company was staying afloat and keeping on the lights in its sumptuous Melbourne and Sydney showrooms."

At its peak in early 2017, Mossgreen had 55 staff, almost double Sotheby’s which auctioned three times as much.

The paper suggested Mossgreen had some blockbuster auctions, that "raised only a few hundred thousand dollars, well below the $1 million that industry veterans say is needed for an auction to make money."

“It can cost you as much to auction off a $600 piece of Royal Doulton as it does to sell a $10,000 painting,” noted Mark Fraser, who suggested Mossgreen had spent too much on its premises.

“If you’ve got good stuff to sell, you can sell it in a tin shed, you don’t need fabulous auction rooms,” the former chairman of auction house Bonhams, Fraser, and now an independent art consultant said.

Sumner started Mossgreen in 2004 by briefly selling artworks from the walls of his rented Macleay Regis, Potts Point apartment, the same building as the Sydney society family, the Copplesons’ who were among his final auction content vendors.

Mossgreen contractually paid clients after 60 days, double the standard 30 days.

It used money in its client account as a spare line of credit with the shortfall, according to two of the AFR sources, growing.

An ownership change inside Mossgreen’s business in July meant the shortfall became a big problem, it noted.

It was when Jack Gringlas sought to stop funding its losses. By 2017 he had lent $6 million to Mossgreen.

In 2013 he invested $1.6 million into Mossgreen in return for 40 per cent equity. Charles Leski bought 20 per cent, leaving Sumner with the rest.

Last July Gringlas and Leski sold their combined 60 per cent to Sumner for $2.4 million, the same price they had paid.

Gringlas agreed he could pay in four years’ time and reportedly also gave Sumner two years to find new backers so Mossgreen could pay back the $6 million.

Documents obtained by Property Observer indicated Paul Sumner's auction house owes its auction vendors $6.8 million, which is $1 million more than administrators calculated ahead of the first creditors' meeting last month.

Toorak businessman Jack Gringlas​ remains the biggest secured creditor, being owed $6 million. 

The administration came December 21 following failed fundraising attempts.

Sumner, who did not attend the first meeting, blamed the current circumstance on growing "a little bit fast."

There were 330 creditors initially identified at the meeting who were told no law required trust accounts for the auction proceeds.

The names of the creditors are a who's who from across Australia, ranging from passionate collectors, socialites, low key business tycoons to deceased estates.

The biggest unsecured creditor stemmed from the auction of a book collection.

Some $1.75 million is owed to the family of the late wealthy insurance underwriter Martin Copley who auctioned off the books in October.

His auction items included John Gould's monumental The Birds of Australia, a large folio in eight volumes with 681 hand-coloured lithographed plates, bound in dark green morocco by Riviere, an original subscriber's set, which sold at $446,400 including premium.

The second biggest client was another deceased estate, that of the late South Australian Building industry icon Alan Hickinbotham and his late wife Margaret. 

It was billed as the highest value collection ever to be sold in Adelaide when auctioned in May by Mossgreen's chief, Paul Sumner.

Sydney's society Coppleson family were listed as owed $465,000, the third highest-owed creditor.

It followed the sale of the contents of the Macleay Regis penthouse, home of the late esteemed gynaecologist Professor Malcolm Coppleson and his late wife, Patricia, who was Vogue Living’s editor-at-large.

The 172 lots included the sale of a $192,200 Ian Fairweather work which had an $80,000 to $120,000 price guidance. A Tim Maguire fetched $117,800.

Mossgreen's last auction on December 7 last year was the contents of the Sheehy family with just 274 of the 438 lots being sold. The family, who are owed $45,000, inquired at the meeting whether Sumner's passport would be surrendered.

Jonathan Chancellor

Jonathan Chancellor

Jonathan Chancellor is one of Australia's most respected property journalists, having been at the top of the game since the early 1980s. Jonathan co-founded the property industry website Property Observer and has written for national and international publications.

Liquidation Mossgreen

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