Hobbies

The Truth About Wine Auctions, Scandals, and Sales

Just be sure to commit to your high bid before the fun starts.
IMAGE FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
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Some of the better parties I’ve been to in the past decade have been wine auctions. The major houses have been sponsoring bacchanals at which fine wine is not only sold but consumed in robust quantities. “When we started out, it was rows of chairs lined up in a room, with water and crackers,” says John Kapon, chairman of Acker Merrall & Condit, which probably started this trend. “Then we got the idea to make it livelier.”

In fact, things got too lively for a while. The party reached a crescendo at an April 2008 Acker auction that featured the last-minute withdrawal of 84 bottles of wine suspected of being bogus that had been consigned by the collector Rudy Kurniawan, who is now serving a sentence for counterfeiting. Within a few months the world economy started to melt down, the feds began to close in on Kurniawan, and the market for fine wine went into a slump.

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A 1945 Romanee-Conti sold by Christie's in Geneva

Ten years later sales are booming, and new record prices are set almost monthly. Because of the volume being sold, treasures can be found at auction, but the prudent collector should bring a dose of skepticism to the proceedings.

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You should write your maximum bids in the catalog before you start drinking, in order to avoid becoming a spectacle yourself.

Acker’s reputation took a hit after Kurniawan was busted, and the firm has since instituted third-party inspection and authentication. Most of the big houses have followed suit. Westchester-based Zachys, for example, “has an in-house team that looks at every bottle that comes to auction,” according to its president, Jeff Zacharia.

“We also have a senior adviser review and engage outside experts.” Chicago-based Hart Davis Hart Wine Co. was the first house to start displaying original sales receipts in auction catalogs. And Sotheby’s Wine has acquired a reputation for rejecting wines (including some from a friend who was offering bottles that I would have purchased).

When I’m serious about a lot, I ask the auction house for as much information as it can give about the provenance and for photographs, which help me assess condition. Wines from a single owner that have a paper trail, purchased on release, are the ultimate quarry. Not only are they authentic, they’re likely to have rested quietly in a single cellar since purchase, and hence to be in good condition. Hardcore collectors will hire an expert like David Beck with of Grand Cru Wine Consulting to inspect the bottles in person.

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Each house has its own character and quirks. Sotheby’s has always been more staid than its competitors. In years past its wine business seemed like a stepchild of its more lucrative art departments, but under the direction of the very British Jamie Ritchie, Sotheby’s has become a major player, leading the global market in 2016.

While Christie’s has in recent years been beating up Sotheby’s in the art realm, it’s currently not as much of a player in the wine market, though it occasionally gets a fine cellar that’s part of a larger estate sale.

Hart Davis Hart has become one of the top houses in the last decade; its BYOB auctions take place in various Chicago restaurants (the typical 9 a.m. start time makes for a more businesslike atmosphere than that at some of its New York counterparts). Zachys has landed some excellent cellars in the last few years; its auctions at Smith & Wollensky and other restaurants often attract big collectors, the kind who spend six figures a month on wine and bring $3,000 bottles to the auction to share with their tablemates.

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A case containing 12 bottles of Romanee-Conti, vintage 1990, goes under the hammer at a fine wine auction in a hotel in Hong Kong on May 31, 2008.

But for sheer spectacle it’s hard to beat Acker, which sponsors the rowdiest auctions, held in some of New York’s ashiest restaurants. Forty-seven-year-old John Kapon, who took his family firm to the top of the worldwide auction market in the 2000s, remains one of the more colorful figures in the wine business.

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At the auctions he alternates between auctioneering and shmoozing, drinking his fair share of the wines provided by the house and those brought by collectors, often addressing individual bidders from the podium and occasionally yelling, “Shut the fuck up!” when things get raucous.

Last year Acker once again claimed the lead in the worldwide wine auction market, with $80.3 million in sales, just edging out Zachys—almost half of that from its Hong Kong auctions. “The major muscle on lots over $50,000 comes from China and Taiwan,” Kapon says.

Online bidding has become a major part of the market in recent years. Buying from home makes it less likely that you’ll get into a pissing contest with a guy across the room, as I did at Sotheby’s recently for a lot of five bottles of 2010 Liger-Belair Echezeaux for which I paid twice the high estimate. (Sotheby’s was so pleased with my bid that it featured the lot in the lead of the press release about the auction results.) The downside, though, is missing out on some excellent wine—and theater.

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One bit of advice that I will now be following myself: If you decide to attend one of the wine auctions coming up this month, you should write your maximum bids in the catalog before you start drinking, in order to avoid becoming a spectacle yourself—or experiencing buyer’s remorse when you see your invoice the next morning.

This article appears in the May 2018 issue of Town & Country.

*This story originally appeared on Townandcountrymag.com

*Minor edits have been made by the Townandcountry.ph editors

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