The auction market is on a roll. Worldwide sales of fine and rare wine amounted to a record $240.53 million in 2006, according to numbers just released by the major auction houses and select Internet auction firms. The total represents a dramatic 45 percent increase over last year. U.S. wine auctions exceeded $167 million in 2006, more than quadruple the total brought in by U.K. sales.
Among the factors that contributed to the elevated totals were a spate of highly valuable consignments, a major increase in the number and size of sales and upward pressure placed on mature wines by the ultraexpensive 2005 vintage in Bordeaux. In addition, the resumption of gala evening sales (first staged by Christie's in 2004 for the Doris Duke auction) preceded by Champagne receptions brought in high-net-worth crowds—and outrageously high average prices per lot.
Acker Merrall & Condit led the global auction pack with a stunning $60.25 million in revenues (including Internet sales), a 189 percent increase over the firm's total last year. Acker also shattered the previous single-cellar sale record of $14.14 million set in 1999 by Sherry-Lehmann with Sotheby's, selling $24.7 million worth of rarities consigned by an anonymous West Coast collector in October. A total of 24 lots at that sale surpassed the $100,000 mark, including a case of DRC Romanée-Conti 1990 that went for $161,325 (44 percent above the wine's first-half 2006 Wine Spectator Auction Index average).
Christie's, which auctions wine in Los Angeles, New York, London, Paris and Geneva, posted $58.57 million in worldwide sales. (That does not include another $12.31 million derived from its Australia operations in association with Langton's auctioneers.) The Sotheby's international tally was $37.38 million, and the house's London volume was up 61 percent from 2005. Zachys followed closely with $34.7 million.
New York auctions accounted for the lion's share of U.S. revenues with a combined gross of $130.93 million (up 66 percent from 2005). Acker led the firms in New York with $57.93 million, followed by Zachys at $25.59 million, NYWinesChristie's at $23.45 million and Aulden Cellars-Sotheby's at $20.41 million.
Outside of New York, Chicago's Hart Davis Hart auctioned $13.77 million worth of fine wine, up 45 percent over 2005. Zachys with Wally's racked up $9.10 million in Los Angeles, followed by Bonhams & Butterfields in San Francisco at $7.50 million and NYWinesChristie's in Los Angeles at $4.45 million.
Winebid.com maintained its control on the Internet, with $22.5 million in sales, up 13 percent.
The top-selling wines of 2006 read like a collector's wish list—but required a six-digit ante to obtain. Last September, a NYWinesChristie's sale in Los Angeles smashed the world record twice for the price of a case at auction when a dozen bottles of the celebrated 1945 vintage of Château Mouton-Rothschild fetched a staggering $290,000 and then a six-magnum case of Mouton '45 was snapped up for $345,000—both up more than 200 percent from their auction index average. In November, a three-jeroboam lot of DRC Romanée-Conti 1978 brought a record $211,500 at NYWinesChristie's in New York. At the same sale, a superlot of 10 six-bottle cases of Screaming Eagle from 1993 to 2003 commanded an unprecedented $176,250.
Pristine provenance was a key concern in 2006. Consignments traced to the famed Bordeaux négociant Mähler-Besse (a firm which routinely purchases prize vintages upon release and cellars them under pristine conditions for decades) sold at a major premium. At Zachys, 24 half-bottles of Château Mouton-Rothschild 1945 from Mähler-Besse fetched $118,500 (up 162 percent) and a case of Château Latour 1955 brought $28,440 (up 262 percent). At Aulden Cellars-Sotheby's, an impeccable case of Mouton 1945 from Mähler-Besse sold for $161,325 (up 76 percent).
The Sotheby's auction of the Park B. Smith collection set a new world record for the most expensive lot of wine to ever go on the block. After fierce bidding, a 50-case (600 bottles) offering of Château Mouton-Rothschild 1982 sold for $1.05 million (up 123 percent) to an anonymous European collector on the telephone.
Although five- and six-digit hammer prices made headline news, it's worth remembering that hundreds of lots traded between $400 and 600, attesting to the fact that it's still possible to acquire good-quality wines at auction that you can uncork without taking out a bank loan. At Zachys' fall sale, where a large number of inexpensive bourgeois crus and petits châteaux were offered (like Château Coufran 1985 at $356 per case and Château Lacroix 1982 at $533 per dozen), auctioneer Ursula Hermacinski quipped, "It's much more fun selling this drinkable, affordable stuff!"
Auction correspondent Peter D. Meltzer is author of the recently published Keys to the Cellar: Strategies and Secrets of Wine Collecting (John Wiley).
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