If someone offered to sell you wine that once belonged to convicted wine counterfeiter Rudy Kurniawan, would you buy it? Beginning today, 4,711 bottles confiscated from Kurniawan by federal marshals will be sold off in two Internet auctions, each lasting two weeks. While the wines' previous owner gives them highly unusual provenance, the marshals promise that every bottle has been authenticated. Kurniawan's fakes are not on sale.
When FBI agents arrested Kurniawan in March 2012, they discovered thousands of bottles in various stages of tinkering in his Los Angeles home. But an even larger cache of his wines rested in a private section of a nearby wine storage warehouse. While a portion of that wine was also counterfeit, most was legitimate. Kurniawan had purchased bottles from dozens of auctions and domestic and European dealers.
Those warehoused wines, 5,300 bottles in all, were seized by the U.S. Marshal's Service under terms of the Justice Department's Asset Forfeiture Program. They were then consigned to Gaston & Sheehan, a Texas auctioneer that sells many kinds of property forfeited to the government.
"Based on sheer volume, this is is the largest authentication job we have ever done," said Jason Martinez, assistant program manager of the asset forfeiture division. Proceeds of the sales will be used to compensate Kurniawan's victims, who purchased at least $20 million of wine that turned out to be worthless.
Many lots in the first round are sure to light up the eyes of Francophile collectors. Champagnes include Philipponnat Clos des Goisses 1996 and Salon Le Mesnil 1928 and 1959. Bordeaux lots include Château La Mission Haut-Brion 1916, Château Haut-Brion Blanc 1961, and a 5-liter bottle of Château Latour 1970. Lots from sought-after Burgundian domaines include magnums of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Romanée-Conti 2002 and 2003, Armand Rousseau Chambertin 1945, J. Faiveley Bonnes Mares 1919 and a 6-liter bottle of Jacques-Frédéric Mugnier Musigny 2004.
The sale also includes many old Burgundies that are past their prime, mainly from Beaune-based négociants Patriarche Père et Fils and Léonce Bocquet. The oldest of these wines are a four-bottle lot of Patriarche Beaune 1904 and two bottles of Léonce Bocquet Richebourg 1907. Kurniawan did not resell wines like these at auction. Instead, in his counterfeiting workshop he would add amounts of younger, fruitier American wines to these old, hand-blown French bottles and relabel them as iconic wines that sold for hefty prices at auction.
The sale also includes 122 bottles of a Liberty Bay Merlot 2002 from Columbia Valley, Washington, the kind of wine Kurniawan would add to older Bordeauxs to fabricate Pomerols such as Lafleur, Pétrus and Latour-à-Pomerol from the 1940s and 1950s.
Teams directed by Stephanie Reeves, a Houston appraiser, conducted the initial inspection of the forfeited wines. They eliminated the most obvious counterfeits first, such as those with photocopied labels. To vet the oldest and rarest French wines, Reeves hired Bordeaux-based authenticator Michael Egan, who testified as an expert witness in Kurniawan's 2013 trial.
"I only saw 770 bottles—the cream of it," Egan told Wine Spectator. "The wines would be brought to me on pallets from the very cold warehouse into an office. It took me five days, working from eight in the morning to early evening." Armed with some fake labels of Kurniawan's he has and a database of examples of Kurniawan’s fakes on his laptop, Egan said that he rejected 199 bottles as counterfeit and another 175 due to lack of capsules or poor-quality corks.
All rejected bottles were stamped "Counterfeit" in bold orange capital letters. "They will be crushed and sent to recycling," said Martinez. Information about the auction can be found at Gaston & Sheehan's website. No commission will be charged on sales. The first two-week sale will begin Nov. 24 and the second will follow on Dec. 1.