Wally's Auctions with Crush Wines conducted their inaugural sale in New York on Nov. 13. Held at Untitled, the restaurant of the Whitney Museum of Art, where megachef Wolfgang Puck prepared a gala dinner for more than 200 registered bidders, the auction brought in $2.69 million against a presale estimate of $2 million to $3 million and was 95 percent sold. An enthusiastic crowd consisting largely of auction regulars showed their support with their paddles.
A superlot containing 33 bottles of the Vosne Romanée vineyards of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti from the 2010 vintage was the sale’s showstopper. It fetched $132,000 against the Wine Spectator Auction Index average of $83,268. Other highlights included a salmanazar (9 liters) of Domaine Fourrier Griotte-Chambertin Vieilles Vignes 2009, which was scooped up by seasoned collector Rob Rosania for $38,400 (well above the $20,000 high estimate), and a seven-bottle superlot of Screaming Eagle Cabernet Sauvignon that sold above estimate for $21,600. A case of Château Pétrus 1996 fetched $20,400 (up 6 percent from the Auction Index) and a case of Dom Pérignon Oenothèque 1969 soared above estimate to bring $36,000. Curiously, 12 bottles of Château la Conseillante 2009 (which received 96 points from Wine Spectator) failed to find a buyer.
How did a six-month old startup enter the ranks of auction heavyweights virtually overnight?
In June 2013, Wally's Wine & Spirits, the renowned Los Angeles wine merchant, was sold by founder Steve Wallace to a group that included co-owner Christian Navarro and fashion moguls Maurice, Paul and Armand Marciano, whose company, Guess Inc., posted revenues of nearly $3 billion last year. A month later, Wally's Wine Auctions was founded (known as Wally's with Crush Wines in New York where regulations require a local retail partner) and the groundwork was laid for a move on Manhattan.
“I wanted to do this for quite some time but had limited financial resources,” said Navarro, now president and COO of Wally’s. “For us, it’s a really good means of getting our brand out globally. I’m not concerned that some say the New York auction market is overcrowded. With our assets, we will be able to do what others can’t do. We’re going to say more nos than yeses to potential consignments. We’re in a position to take just the best products. That should garner us a strong following.”
According to Michael Jessen, president and CEO of Wally's Auctions, (who, along with four other former Zachys Auctions executives, recently joined the Wally’s team), the logistics of getting the venture off the ground in time for the November launch were a challenge—especially since the company was only formed in July. "We were starting from scratch,” said Jessen. “We needed to assemble a core team, set up an infrastructure, locate office and warehouse space. The legal and regulatory aspects were aptly handled by Crush.”
Most important was securing the right consignments. Jessen says in that respect, he was very fortunate, because thanks to Wally’s extensive client list, there were many collectors who wanted to be part of the sale. Jessen and managing director Julia Gilbert also had their own resources. “So we really didn't have to do much in the way of consignment solicitation. As a further inducement, we decided on a buyer's premium of 20 percent -- lower than most other houses. On the seller's side, the fee is based on the nature of the collection and the value of the property. It's a very competitive market and we will be as accommodating as possible to get great collections.”
With a projected value per lot of $4,420, Wally’s is raising the bar a little. (In the third quarter of 2013, the average price per lot was $3,027 nationally). “It’s a model we feel will lead to higher-value, more exciting auctions,” explained Jessen. “As I see it, our role is going to be about how we handle each auction and provide an enhanced experience.”
Added Navarro, “Our sense of the market is that for the format that we wanted to pursue, New York is the most sensible place to be. What has happened over the last 18 to 24 months is that the U.S. buyer has bounced back. We like New York because it has become much more central to the fine wine world, so we had to establish a position there.”
“The bottom line,” said Navarro, “is that auctions are a great business. We may end up being the biggest, we may not be the biggest—I don’t know. There are a lot of wonderful people involved. It’s going to be a lot of fun. And we’re going to sell some really world-class merchandise to people who really want it.”
Paul Marciano, Christian Navarro, Maurice Marciano and Armand Marciano (left to right) expanded their L.A. wine store to New York's auction scene.