Business Eye Cover Story April/May 2019 Edition
Peter Johnston admits that when Wilsons Auctions first branched out into police forces and government work seven years ago or so, he didn't realise how much it was going to change the face of the business.
The company, locally owned and with its operations base in Mallusk, had already grown to become one of the biggest independent auction houses around the UK and had successfully expanded from its Northern Ireland base to the Republic of Ireland, Scotland, Wales and England, but that growth had been on the back of its core business back then....the sale by auction of motor vehicles, plant and machinery.
“Now we're working for a number of big government departments and we're working on behalf of a lot of the UK's police forces when it comes to proceeds of crime asset disposal sales and have returned over £100 million back to the exchequer,” says the Group Operations Director at Wilsons Auctions.
“In fact, we've become the acknowledged experts in the sale of criminal assets. Our Head of Asset Recovery, Aidan Larkin, travels the world talking to government representatives and police forces about how we can turn the proceeds of crime anywhere in the world into cash reserves for the country in question.”
Aidan Larkin takes up the story. Belfast-based but not often in his home city these days, Larkin has been asked to talk at a series of major conferences on asset disposal all over the world, and his travels have taken him as far afield as the USA, Malaysia, elsewhere in the Far East, and – most recently – to Malta and Kosovo.
In fact, he reckons that he's set foot in somewhere between 60 and 70 countries over the past couple of years, which makes for a lot of Air Miles.
But both Larkin and Peter Johnston are quick to add that Wilsons Auctions clear expertise in the disposal of criminal assets has led to another development that no one at the company could have seen coming over the horizon.
The company recently staged its very first auction of seized bitcoin, the cryptocurrency that has rapidly become the currency of choice for criminals all over the world.
The origins of the historic auction lie in Belgium. Over 100 Bitcoins were seized in 2015 by Belgian police in a major drug trafficking case. Two Belgian nationals were suspected of selling drugs on the dark net. Transactions were paid by cryptocurrency and transferred to currency wallets found on a computer of the prime suspect.
“We were chosen to auction the assets ahead of companies in the Netherlands, France and Belgium, thanks to our expertise in managing and selling complicated seized assets across the globe,” says Aidan Larkin.
“The auction was a big success for us, and it's helped to prove our view that a live public auction – with online and physical bids – is the most open and transparent way to sell off these assets. In the event, we received more than 6,300 bids from bidders located in 97 different countries.
Wilsons Auctions didn't just auction the cryptocurrency. It offers a full service – as with other criminal assets – that include recovery, storage and the sale of assets.
In the past, more tangible assets have ranged from properties and luxury cars to watches, jewellery, yachts and – in at least one case – horses.
Different national governments take different attitudes to seized criminal assets. In some European countries, for instance, the proceeds of crime can be seized and sold before the conviction of a suspect. Here in the UK, it's a bit more complex than that and usually requires a conviction first.
In the UK, largely, the sale of criminal assets is outsourced to specialist companies, with Wilsons Auctions having emerged as a clear market leader.
“At the end of the day, we'll treat cryptocurrency in much the same way as we'll treat a seized Ferrari or an expensive watch. The main difference for us is understanding the unique complexities around recovering and storing the asset when we are dealing with cryptocurrency for example,” Larkin adds.
“I heard a South African lawyer and UN Advisor on Asset Management say that private sector asset management including managing crypto currency and what Wilsons Auctions offers, is the logical progression for governments dealing with criminal assets, saying it’s the evolution of asset management using private sector companies.”
Wilsons Auctions works closely alongside the international Financial Action Task Force, an intergovernmental organisation founded in 1989 on the initiative of the G7 to develop policies to combat money laundering. More recently, its mandate has expended to include the financing of terrorism.
“So we know that we're in a unique position in this very specialist marketplace,” adds Peter Johnston. “We've built up a lot of expertise over the years, we can offer our clients a full service from recovery and storage through to sale, and we're very happy to talk to interested parties and providing as much advice as we possibly can.”
Next step forward, potentially, is for Wilsons Auctions to break into the US marketplace. US Marshalls have already been active in the sale of cryptocurrency recovered from criminals but has preferred a sealed bid auction system up to now.
For Aidan Larkin and Wilsons Auctions, an item high on their list of priorities is to argue the case for live auctions to the American authorities.
The sale of criminal assets, and the sale of cryptocurrency in particular, has necessitated a major £1 million plus investment in IT infrastructures and security at the Mallusk-based firm, already no stranger to complex security measures around some of the more tangible criminal assets it deals with.
Away from criminal assets, Wilsons Auctions maintains its core business of vehicle and machinery auctions at its various UK and Ireland sites, and it works alongside major organisations like the International Association of Insolvency Regulators, being asked to present its asset management model at the body's international annual conference in Belfast this September for the first time.
“It's fair to say that a lot of the customers who come here to buy a car have no idea of the breadth and scope of what we do as a company,” adds Peter Johnston. “The company is achieving an annual hammer total in excess of £310 million and has become a market leader in so many different aspects of the auction business, whether its quarry equipment from Australia or bitcoins from Las Vegas.
“We don't always shout about it. In fact, we prefer to let our success be our noise.”