Investors who felt swindled by the stamp-trading scandal that rocked Escala last year have had their hopes of recouping some of their losses blocked -- at least temporarily.
Escala's parent, Afinsa Bienes Tangibles -- the Spanish auction house that owns two-thirds of the domestic coin and stamp trader and is at the center of the maelstrom -- filed for Chapter 15 bankruptcy protection last week. The move shields Escala's assets from lawsuits.
Afinsa was seized last May by Spanish authorities who accused the auction house of running a glorified Ponzi scheme. Its executives were charged with selling worthless stamps as collectibles while guaranteeing sensational rates of return. To keep the con game afloat, Afinsa had to continuously bring more investors into the scheme. Along with another Spanish auction house, Forum Filatelico, hundreds of thousands of Spaniards have lost their investments.
U.S.-based Escala was sucked into the vortex because it was Afinsa's enabler. It supplied the auction house with large volumes of the stamps in return for ever greater payments. Revenues from Afinsa in these deals accounted for nearly three-quarters of Escala's profits. Its stock, which at one time had been flying in the mid-$30s, has sunk as low as $2.40 per share in the aftermath of the Afinsa seizure. It was finally kicked off the Nasdaq exchange in February and now trades on the Pink Sheets.
Afinsa's move to file for bankruptcy protection here in the U.S. was done mainly to protect Escala. It's believed that Afinsa may need Escala whole particularly if Spanish authorities reach across the Atlantic to seize its assets to make restitution to Spanish investors. Foreign companies who are already under bankruptcy proceedings in their home country use Chapter 15. Afinsa was thrown into bankruptcy following the raids on its offices -- a sad moment for what was once the world's third-largest auction house behind Sotheby's
The handful of people who still own the stock got a boost from Afinsa's action, which caused a rise in its share price of more than $1. The stock, which is heavily shorted, also probably benefited from a few of those shorts covering their shares. If that continues to happen, we could see a "short squeeze," which results from the shorts actually pushing the shares higher as they hurry to cover.
A squeeze, though, can only be a temporary salve to shareholders who seem to hope against hope that there is something to salvage out of the detritus that was once an international coin- and stamp-trading powerhouse.
Whether it's through class action lawsuits or asset seizures by Spanish authorities, the future for Escala ultimately looks bleak.
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