When the hammer came down on the extraordinary sale of a bottle of 1869 Château Lafite, history was made. Estimated to reach $8,000, it sold for $233,972, making it the most expensive 750ml bottle of wine on the planet.
“There was a big round of applause, some cheers, and a little bit of shock and amazement,” recalled Robert Sleigh, head of Sotheby’s Asia wine department. “People were conscious of witnessing history.”
The sale of 2,000 bottles direct from Lafite’s cellars, held by Sotheby’s in the Hong Kong Mandarin Oriental on Oct. 29, generated 65,473,000 HKD ($8,440,124). From the first lot of 2009 to the aforementioned 1869, prices sometimes hit three times the U.S. market rate.
“It was ridiculous,” said Seline Fong, director of Hong Kong wholesaler Five Star Wines. But maybe not surprising—Fong, who sells 80 percent of her Bordeaux to mainland China, admitted that her clients want Lafite and “they don’t look at the price.”
Nevertheless, the 1869, sold to an anonymous Asian bidder, was a stunner.
“It was surreal,” said Christophe Salin, Lafite’s president and CEO. “But it was a unique piece, so why not?”
“This was the hottest wine town and the hottest wine of the moment creating the excitement,” said Sleigh, who recently transplanted his family to Hong Kong. With Sotheby’s Hong Kong wine sales doubling New York and London combined, “there was no way not to be here.”
Prices for Lafite are stratospheric in Asia, where it is considered a luxury purchase and coveted gift item. After being (gently) pressured for years by the major auction houses to hold an ex-cellar sale, Salin gave the nod to Hong Kong.
“I’ve been traveling to Asia for 20 years. I thought it would be a nice way to say both ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’ to the Chinese people,” said Salin. “It was a way to show our respect for a new market.”
When deciding on the vintages for the auction, Salin had to reach far back in his inventory to have enough old vintages to make the sale unique. The 1869, a rare pre-phylloxera vintage with ‘very good tasting notes,’ seemed a unique pinnacle for the sale. Neither Salin nor Sleigh could remember another 1869 Lafite sold.
“But the big difference here that makes any previous sale irrelevant is the provenance,” said Sleigh. “All bets are off when it’s straight from the château.”
There was such demand to attend the auction that Sotheby’s had to issue tickets. “We could have filled the room three times over with the people who wanted to watch,” said Sleigh.
One of the happy few to have a ticket, Fong sat back to soak up the excitement when prices shot out of her range. “There were only a few people who are actually buying these wines and it always seems to be an absentee bid on the phone.”
Sotheby’s declined to comment on the underbidders for this particular lot, but it’s worth noting that all it takes is two bidders to escalate the price, not a roomful.
Now that the euphoria of the auction has had time to fade, there’s been an interesting development: The excitement hasn’t diminished. “The auction has had an interesting effect on the market. There’s been a raft of further speculation,” said Nick Pegna, managing director of Berry Bros & Rudd.
“We must have sold 600 cases of Lafite in the 10 days after the auction. There’s been a 10 percent to 15 percent uptick in the prices—across the board, all vintages,” said Gary Boom, a wine merchant specializing in Bordeaux.
“The headline wines are not giving us the underlying picture,” said Pegna, “which is that the market is very strong.”