There has been a growing buzz among enthusiastic collectors and certain auctioneers that the auction market is back on track. And data from the third quarter of 2009 would appear to bear that out: the Wine Spectator Auction Index rose 12 percent above its previous average, to its highest level since the third quarter of 2008. Prices for 65 percent of the wines tracked in the auction database surpassed their second-quarter 2009 results, with many listings rising by 50 percent or more.
The wine-auction market is clearly on a rebound, yet it is worth remembering that compared to last year, winning bids are still somewhat lower and the overall size of the U.S. market is smaller. Among third-quarter 2008 auctions, 11,452 lots offered at nine auctions brought in a total of $28,608,235, but one year later, seven auctions comprising 8,705 lots realized $17,386,238, a drop of 20 percent when comparing the price per lot paid for each quarter.
Much of the growth this quarter came from top Bordeaux that outperformed the pack, as well as the best examples of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. At Sotheby's, a case of Château Pétrus 1982 commanded $54,450 (up 69 percent from the second quarter) and a case of Château Lafite 2005 sold for $14,520 (up 45 percent). At Zachys, DRC Romanée-Conti snared the top two slots at their September sale, with six bottles of the 2005 selling for $52,800, and a methuselah (6L) of the 1996 attaining $43,200. A case of Château La Mission-Haut-Brion 1945 sold for a hefty $72,000 (up 285 percent) at NYWinesChristies, and a dozen bottles of Château Mouton-Rothschild 2003 fetched $5,975 (up 96 percent) at Hart Davis Hart.
Other top gainers included a case of Screaming Eagle Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2001, which brought $24,200 (up 34 percent) at Acker Merrall & Condit. At Zachys, a case of Henri Boillot Montrachet 2003 sold for $3,600 (up 113 percent).
There are still bargains out there for savvy bidders. Young wines and mid-range Italian and German bottlings were among the quarter’s laggards, while Calfornia labels had a mixed performance. At Sotheby's, a case of S. Giuseppe Quintarelli Recioto della Valpolicella Classico 1997 brought $1,331 (down 59 percent) and at Christie's, 24 half-bottles of Château d'Yquem 2001 fetched $5,400 (down 47 percent). At Bonhams & Butterfields in San Francisco, six bottles of Shafer Cabernet Sauvignon Stags Leap District Hillside Select 2004 were down 45 percent at $1,071. According to Christie's North American wine director, Charles Curtis, demand for large-format bottles lagged behind standard bottlings.
Continuing a trend, sales in the Far East were particularly robust. Both Acker Merrall & Condit and Zachys' Hong Kong auctions were 100 percent sold, bringing US$6.4 million and US$4.9 million respectively. At Acker, the standout lot was a case of 1990 DRC La Tâche that sold for US$74,462 (129 percent above the U.S. average) and a dozen bottles of Pétrus 1989 that sold for US$43,436 (up 47 percent). At Zachys, a single magnum of Château Margaux 1945 soared to US$14,052 (up 153 percent) and a case of '82 Margaux went for US$15,613 (up 131 percent).
In the wake of the third quarter's strong performance, auction estimates are expected to rise on a selective basis. Acker's president John Kapon says, "The wine auction market has bounced back significantly and there is a continuing strong demand for fine wines of superb quality and rarity."
—Assistant tasting coordinator Nick Suarez contributed to this report
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