With the auction market for rare and collectible wines having risen to an all-time high (of $240 million last year), so too have the suspicions of the U.S. Department of Justice. Though it's still unclear how many, several subpoenas have been issued this week to auction houses that deal in collectible wines. A DOJ spokesman would not confirm that an investigation is underway, but it seems likely given that all the top auction houses--Sotheby's, Christie's and Zachy's--received subpoenas this week from the U.S. Attorney's Office in New York.
While federal investigators are remaining tight-lipped, so too are the auction houses. "Christie's will not sell any lot that we know or have reason to believe is inauthentic or counterfeit," the auction house said in a statement. "We take all appropriate steps to establish authenticity, and work with the leading experts, authorities and institutions in the relevant field to research the property that we sell."
Unfortunately, that's easier said than done. Not only do many older bottles and corks lack identifying marks or serial numbers, counterfeiters have become increasingly talented at not only reproducing the labels, but the wine inside the bottle. Some say counterfeits make up 5 percent of the auction market, though others fear it could be much worse. On a recent trip to Hong Kong, Wine Spectator's European bureau chief James Suckling came across some counterfeit wines during a dinner at which several rare bottles were opened.
"It's difficult to have a documented history when the wine is 80 or 100 years old or more," said Sebastian Rowe, director of London-based Bordeaux Index Ltd., a company that sells fine wines to consumers in the U.K. and U.S. "Normally, if there is any question mark on a wine, we wouldn't sell it, and the supplier is happier knowing that we stopped the sale."
The auction houses claim to be cooperating with federal officials. Furthermore, they all claim to have long done their best to prevent fake wines from making it onto the auction block by inspecting the wines. Also, the foils are often cut off so the corks can be examined.
"The good news is that the buyers of these wines can often sniff a fake," Rowe added. "In England, for example, we sometimes deal with a member of a family who has been buying fine wines for generations. It's not like in the Far East, another booming market, where wine is new to the culture and some people just buy a wine to look at the label. Our clients know their stuff. Even if it got past us, it wouldn't get past them."
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