Wine auctioneer Christie's has withdrawn a magnum of rare Burgundy from its auction scheduled for Friday, May 31, after doubts were raised about its authenticity, first by collectors and then by the winery that ostensibly produced it, Domaine de la Romanée-Conti (DRC). It's the latest evidence that collectors are self-policing auctions after years of reports of fakes—and it raises the question of whether auction houses are sufficiently investigating wines' provenance.
The bottle in question is a magnum identified as DRC La Tâche 1962, estimated to sell for $18,000 to $24,000 plus a buyer's premium of 22 percent. The catalog offers no information about the magnum's provenance. Wine Spectator has learned that it may have been sold by Christie's at an auction in New York in December 2010. The purchaser returned it to Christie's after learning that it was fake. Photos of the bottle from the 2010 sale and from the catalog for the 2013 auction show that the bottles appear identical—they even share the same bottle number on the label.
When Don Cornwell, a Los Angeles lawyer and Burgundy collector, saw a full-page catalog photo of the magnum, it made him question the wine's authenticity. Detailing his concerns on the Wine Berserkers website, Cornwell argued that the Christie's magnum bears several inauthentic details. It also, he believes, shows similarities to magnums of La Tâche 1962 sold by Rudy Kurniawan, an Indonesian wine collector awaiting trial on federal charges of wine counterfeiting. Since 2006, Kurniawan has sold several magnums of La Tâche 1962.
Cornwell questioned several details on the label, including the circumflex over the "A" in "TâCHE," which was not typical on this label before the 1970s. The faintly stamped bottle number in the photo consists of four digits—most bottles bear five digits. And while La Tâche magnums of this vintage normally have foil capsules, the one in the photo appears to be wax. Some of these same details appeared on purported DRC wines that were withdrawn from a February 2012 auction held in London by Spectrum Wine Auctions and wine dealer Vanquish. Some of those wines were consigned by Kurniawan via a third party, according to the indictment of Kurniawan.
When the doubts were first raised, Per Holmberg, Christie's North American wine director, stood by the magnum. Responding to questions by wine dealer (and former Christie's New York wine partner) Geoffrey Troy, Holmberg responded that, "We sent photos to DRC of the bottle, they told us based on the photos there was nothing that would lead them to believe that there was anything wrong."
But DRC codirector Aubert de Villaine told Wine Spectator he was less sanguine about the Christie's offering. "There is nothing that one can conclude by looking at the picture," said de Villaine. "All I can say is that the capsule or wax—it is impossible to see what it is from the picture—is obviously not original." De Villaine did say that the circumflex and the number of digits "doesn't reveal anything." But he concluded, "It is impossible for me to say if the bottle contains authentic La Tâche 1962 wine or not, but faced with doubts, I believe that we would not authenticate it."
Two days before the auction, Holmberg told Wine Spectator, "The lot in question has been withdrawn from sale to allow additional time for first-hand inspection by additional third-party experts. Christie's has opted to take the additional step of arranging an in-person inspection [of the magnum], given the variations in labeling that often come with older vintage DRC wines."