Collectors just can't get enough. Almost twice as many lots of fine and rare wine will be auctioned in May 2007 than were offered in the same month a year ago. Wine collectors' taste for trophies and treasures seems to be insatiable.
Estimates in the five- and six-figure range no longer raise eyebrows. What's more, they are rarely anticipatory. Most estimates for the upcoming May sales mirror the high/low data contained in the first-quarter 2007 Wine Spectator Auction Index. Nonetheless, there could be occasional buying opportunities, albeit at rarefied levels. It's important to remember that an estimate is not a guarantee, nor does it include the buyer's premium, whereas the auction index factors in the latter. (These days, the average buyer's premium hovers close to 20 percent of the winning bid.)
The number of gala sales devoted almost exclusively to high-end wines has grown exponentially. This month will see, for example, lots such as an imperial of Château Mouton-Rothschild 1947 (valued at $40,000 to $60,000 at Hart Davis Hart) and a 42-magnum superlot from the 1982 Bordeaux vintage (estimated at a hefty $125,000 to $200,000 at Zachys).
That's only the beginning. Chicago auction house Hart Davis Hart is offering 11 bottles of DRC la Tâche 1971 from the stunning collection of the late Steven Verlin for $26,000 to $38,000 (below the $36,498 to $46,013 spread in the index). At the same sale, six bottles of Château Haut-Brion 1945 are listed at $16,000 to $24,000. The index average for six bottles of '45 Haut-Brion is $83,652--purely on account of provenance. That figure is based on a three-bottle sale that came directly from the private cellar of Baroness Philippine de Rothschild, held at Aulden Cellars—Sotheby's in February. No one is likely to top that price.
On May 9, Acker Merrall & Condit is auctioning six magnums of Ramonet Montrachet 1996, which could represent good value if they sell toward the low end of their $22,000 to $32,000 estimate. The index average for the wine is $30,114. Morrell & Company is offering a case of Château La Mission-Haut-Brion 1982 at $5,500 to $7,000--nearly 50 percent below the index average because the fill levels vary.
Pristine provenance usually causes a wine's hammer price to skyrocket, which is what could happen with a couple May lots. Zachys is offering an imperial of the legendary Château Latour 1961 for $60,000 to $100,000. It has had only two owners: the consignor who bought it at a Paris auction in 2002, and Château Latour itself, which released the wine to auction at that time. In contrast, the most recent index average for an imperial of '61 Latour was $31,070. At the same sale, the estimate for two cases of the classic Heitz Cellars Martha's Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 1974 is $15,000 to $25,000 each, reflecting the fact that they were purchased upon release from the winery. The index high is $15,060. If you can snare them at the low end of their $8,000 to $12,000 estimate, nine bottles of J.F. Coche-Dury Corton-Charlemagne 1999 from New York's renowned Montrachet restaurant are a good buy.
On May 19, Aulden Cellars—Sotheby's is offering a collection of wines that are consigned directly by the acclaimed Château Lynch-Bages. They include three double magnums from the 1982 vintage estimated at $4,000 to $6,000 each and six magnums from the 1966 vintage estimated at $3,600 to $5,200. Both estimates surpass the index average by a considerable margin, although they represent a not unrealistic appraisal of the wines' worth given the provenance. Hankering for Pétrus 1982? There are three cases from a private collection estimated at $35,000 to $55,000 each. The index high is $62,136 (inclusive of the buyer's premium).
Are there any bargains to be had? It depends on your price range. On May 22, NYWinesChristie's is offering a jeroboam of DRC La Tâche 1971, which could be a bargain if the hammer falls at the low end of its $20,000 to $30,000 estimate. The index average is $27,343. A dozen bottles of Ramonet Montrachet 1992 are on the block for $10,000 to $16,000. Considering the low end of the index is $16,848, there's potential bargain material here.
Even if that's still beyond the starting collector's budget, there are some upcoming lots that could be a bit more wallet-friendly. Remember that most savvy consignors also cellar a stash of quality wines for everyday use. At the Verlin collection, for instance, there's a case of Dominique Laurent Vosne-Romanée les Suchots 1997 offered at $420 to $650--well below the $768 average contained in the auction index. Additionally, you'll find six cases of Château Grand-Mayne 2000 at $420 to $650. The release price was $660 per dozen.
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