An auction composed of highly collectible wines sourced exclusively from Rudy Kurniawan might seem like an oxymoron. But that was the goal of a three-week, Internet-only sale of more than 4,700 bottles, all seized from the convicted wine counterfeiter, that ended Dec. 15. Unlike the wines made in his kitchen, these were wines that Kurniawan had purchased from reliable auctions and dealers and all were authenticated by wine experts.
Bidders looking for rare wines and confident in the authentication showed their trust by spending more than $1.5 million on 905 lots. With only 22 lots left unsold, the sell-through rate was almost 98 percent. But the wines did attract lower prices than similar wines in recent, more typical auctions.
The sale was held by a Texas auctioneer under the direction of the U.S. Marshals Service as part of its Asset Forfeiture Program. All lots were sold free of commission. Net proceeds will be used to compensate Kurniawan's victims, whose losses were pegged at more than $20 million at his 2013 trial.
The top lot, three bottles of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Romanée-Conti 1911, fetched $45,200—even though all three bottles were missing their main labels. "The capsules remained and looked right for the era and, importantly, their crowns were correctly stamped," said Michael Egan, a Bordeaux-based authentication expert who was hired to inspect the most-challenging bottles to authenticate—770 in all. Egan says that he was able to see DRC branding on two of the three corks, but it was illegible on the third.
Egan also traced the provenance of the three 1911 bottles to a 2008 sale by Skinner Auctioneers in Boston, where they sold for $60,750. Marie Keep, head of wine for Skinner, told Wine Spectator, "We vetted these bottles so that we had confidence in them." Keep says that the color of the wine was "beautiful" and that the bottles still had main labels when they were sold. So what happened to them?
"They're probably still stuck in Rudy's scanner," quipped Egan.
Other Burgundy lots fetching healthy prices included six magnums of Armand Rousseau Chambertin 1999 that sold for $26,559 and a half-dozen bottles of G. Roumier Chambolle-Musigny Les Amoureuses 1985 that made $11,100. A case of Joseph Matrot Blagny La Pièce Sous le Bois 1962 sold for $2,021 after attracting 174 bids, the most for any single lot in the auction.
From Bordeaux, 11 bottles of Château Lafleur 1975 brought $18,000, and two bottles of Château Latour à Pomerol 1961 fetched $11,000. A single bottle of Château Mouton-Rothschild 1945 went for $7,650. Another bottle of the same wine was deemed fake by Egan and destroyed. From Italy, 10 bottles of Giacomo Conterno Barolo Montfortino 1961 attracted 52 bids and sold for $10,550.
Select California wines were also in high demand. Three double magnums of Joseph Phelps Eisele Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 1978 sold for $6,520 and a single magnum of Ridge Eisele Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 1971 sold for $4,521. Bottles of Manfred Krankl's Rhône-style Sine Qua Non also attracted big bids. A half-bottle of SQN El Corazon 1998 reached $3,011, while two bottles of SQN The Bride 1995 sold for $5,200. And two magnums of Tant Pis 1995 went for an astonishing $15,600.
But the source of the wines undoubtedly inspired caution. Those six magnums of Rousseau Chambertin 1999 for $26,559 are currently selling for an average price of $44,100, according to Wine Spectator's auction index. Mouton-Rothschild 1945 currently sells for an average price of $13,000 a bottle, almost 70 percent more than this bottle attracted.
The oldest wine offered was a Bouchard Père & Fils Ermitage 1838, which sold for $1,720. According to Egan, the bottle had been last sold at a Zachy's auction on April 25, 2008, probably to Kurniawan. On that same day, 22 lots of wines purportedly from Domaine Ponsot and consigned by Kurniawan were pulled from an Acker Merrall & Condit auction in New York after Laurent Ponsot identified the lots as counterfeit. That was the beginning of Kurniawan's downfall.
Some wines auctioned in the Marshals' sale were Kurniawan favorites for counterfeiting, such as DRC Romanée-Conti 1959 (a single bottle failed to sell) and Latour à Pomerol 1961. "I did discover quite a few items that I considered real that were obviously very precious to Kurniawan because he used them as templates for his counterfeits," said Egan. "He needed benchmarks."
Even as Kurniawan was busy faking high-value wines, he was also buying enormous quantities of legitimate wine from reputable dealers for resale. Thousands of those wines, mingled with counterfeits, were resting in a California wine warehouse at the time of his arrest on March 8, 2012. "We began to plan on how to handle these wines in the spring of 2014," said Justin Martinez, an assistant program manager in the Asset Forfeiture Division. "Previously, we'd sold small numbers of wines—never more than 300 bottles."
The wines were transported to Gaston & Sheehan, a Texas auctioneer under contract by the Marshals to sell forfeited property. Stephanie Reeves, a Houston-based appraiser, was retained to examine the wines. She brought in Egan to appraise the "highest risk" bottles. Last week, more than 500 bottles of rejected Kurniawan wines were crushed under a 6,000-pound magnet at a Texas recycling facility.
Six examples of Kurniawan's finest fakes, however, escaped the crusher. They include oversized bottles of Château Pétrus and Romanée-Conti from great vintages. Those bottles, according to Martinez, are being preserved for eventual display at the future U.S. Marshals Museum scheduled to be built in Fort Smith, Ark.
Credit: Brien Aho for U.S. Marshals Service