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2002 Wine Auction Sales Down 12 Percent

Rarities remain buoyant in second quarter.

Peter D. Meltzer
Posted: July 15, 2002

Worldwide wine auction sales for 2002 totaled $37,583,000, inclusive of the buyer's premium, by the end of June -- a 12 percent decline from that same period in 2001. Perhaps tellingly, the Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped by the same factor.

This year, the disparity between U.S. and U.K. auction results was even more pronounced than last year: American wine sales have fallen just 3 percent to date, whereas London sales are off by 30 percent. Yet global prices for highly sought-after vintage classics have largely bucked the trend.

While both the U.S. and U.K. auction markets have been affected by the downturn in the American stock market, economic volatility in the Far East has had an additional impact on U.K. sales, according to David Elswood, Christie's wine director for Europe and the Far East. (Asian collectors traditionally bid in London.) Elswood said that the London figures don't altogether surprise him, "as there was a dearth of good stock in the first half of 2002."

The ranking of the major commercial auction houses in relation to each other remained virtually unchanged from the corresponding period last year. NYWinesChristie's led the U.S. market with $9.2 million in sales (its predecessor, ZachysChristie's, also led in mid-2001), followed by Acker Merrall & Condit at $8.5 million, Aulden Cellars-Sotheby's at $5.3 million and Morrell & Co. at $2.8 million. Butterfields reported $1.6 million in sales. In the United Kingdom, Sotheby's led with $5.1 million, followed by Christie's with $4.6 million.

The overall auction market may have softened, but Serena Sutcliffe, head of Sotheby's international wine department, observed: "The very top wines seem to stay in demand and fetch excellent prices, because of rarity and difficulty in perfect sourcing." In the second quarter of 2002, dozens of lots exceeded their average price in the Wine Spectator Auction Index by more than 100 percent.

Highlights included a case of Ramonet Bâtard-Montrachet 1978 which fetched $7,637 (up 186 percent from its Auction Index average) at Aulden Cellars-Sotheby's; six magnums of DRC La Tâche 1969 that sold for $17,960 (up 143 percent) at Acker Merrall & Condit; and 10 bottles of DRC Romanée-Conti 1962 that commanded $55,200 (up 144 percent) at NYWinesChristie's. At Sotheby's in London, eight bottles of Château La Mission-Haut-Brion 1945 brought $12,541 (up 130 percent), and at Christie's, 10 bottles of Château Latour 1961 were snapped up for $20,196 (up 102 percent).

When it came to finding bargains, price swings were less extreme because the seller's reserve kicks in to prevent the price of a consignment from nose-diving. Nevertheless, at Acker Merrall & Condit's New York auction (held after a week that saw the Dow plummet nearly 500 points), a case of Château Pétrus 1989 was snared for $12,180 (down 38 percent), and a dozen bottles of Château Haut-Brion 1989 fetched $4,408 (down 35 percent). At NYWinesChristie's, the price of Château Latour 1990 ranged from $6,325 to $5,175. One of the best buys of the quarter was six magnums of Pétrus 1982 knocked down for $25,157 (down 51 percent) at Sotheby's in London.

California cult wines continued their mercurial path. At Butterfields, six bottles of Bryant Family Cabernet Sauvignon 1997 rose 24 percent to $3,738. At Acker Merrall & Condit, a case of Bryant Family Cabernet Sauvignon 1999 sold below estimate for $5,568, and magnums of Colgin Cabernet Sauvignon from 1994, 1995 and 1996 were passed up.

In the United Kingdom, sales of Dom Pérignon 1990 and Krug 1985 were equally spotty, prompting Sutcliffe to quip, "Champagne does not seem to be the flavor of the month."

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