Despite volatile financial markets, a major credit crunch and declining consumer confidence in the last half of 2007, worldwide auctions of fine and rare wines rose 25 percent over 2006 to hit a record $301 million in sales, according to figures just released by the major auction houses. Auctions in the United States, which accounts for the lion's share of all wine auctions, realized $210 million, an increase of 23 percent over 2006 and a whopping 93 percent hike over 2005.
A proliferation of gala evening sessions where the average price per lot often exceeded $10,000 and a string of single-cellar sales boasting pristine provenance and impeccable storage partially explained the boost in sales volume. So did an influx of new, cash-rich buyers. The release of the highly rated and highly expensive 2005 Bordeaux vintage has also put tremendous upward pressure on prices of mature wines already in the auction pipeline. The decline in the dollar makes U.S.-denominated bids especially attractive to foreign buyers, adding to the frenetic competition.
For the second year in a row, the New York firm of Acker Merrall & Condit led the U.S. pack with $59.86 million in sales (inclusive of $3.8 million in Internet sales). Acker also held the record for the largest individual wine auction in 2007—$15.6 million in October. At that sale, several winning bids surpassed the $100,000 mark, including a methuselah of DRC Romanée-Conti 1999 that sold for $127,050 (67 percent above the third-quarter 2007 Wine Spectator Auction Index) and a case of A. Rousseau Chambertin 1962 that brought $108,900 (up 42 percent).
Not far behind was Zachys, the Scarsdale, N.Y.-based retailer, with revenues of $44.56 million in New York and $7.88 million at its Los Angeles location. Zachys' combined total of $52.45 million represents a 51 percent increase over 2006. The house also maintained an extremely high 98 percent-sold rate. Among Zachys' many highlights were two cases of Château d'Yquem 1945 that brought $178,500 each, and a bottle of Yquem 1858 that commanded $21,420 (up 4,681 percent) in September. Last October in Los Angeles, Zachys with Wally's sold 10 magnums of Screaming Eagle Cabernet Sauvignon from 1992 to 2002 for $115,430 against an estimate of $60,000 to $100,000.
Worldwide wine sales for Sotheby's totaled $49.29 million, a 32 percent increase over 2006. London accounted for $20.9 million and in New York, Aulden Cellars-Sotheby's tallied $28.39 million. Last February in Manhattan, Sotheby's conducted a single-owner sale consigned by the Baroness Philippine de Rothschild that included a jeroboam of Château Mouton-Rothschild 1945. It brought $310,700, the most expensive bottle of wine ever sold by Sotheby's. In October, Sotheby's set a new world record, $262,900, for a case of DRC Romanée-Conti 1990. According to the auction index, just three years ago, DRC 1990 averaged $60,144 per dozen—less than a quarter the current price.
Chicago-based Hart Davis Hart reported $26.9 million in sales, a 95 percent increase over 2007. It was also the only firm to record four 100 percent sold auctions. In May, HDH auctioned the cellar of the late Steven Verlin, a veteran collector and former partner at Manhattan's Veritas restaurant for $7.1 million. One of the auction's highlights was an imperial of Château Pétrus 1990, which brought $59,750 (up 108 percent). HDH followed up in December with an additional consignment from Verlin's widow that fetched $3.91 million. At that sale, a six-bottle lot of DRC Romanée-Conti 1999 sold for $43,020 (up 17 percent).
On the Internet, Winebid.com held sway with $26 million in sales, a rise of 15 percent. Just as significant was the average percent-sold rate of roughly 94 percent, a clear sign of market strength.
Christie's, which auctions wine in London, New York, Los Angeles, Paris, Bordeaux, Amsterdam and Geneva, reported its best year ever, with a global total of $71.65 million (up 22 percent). One of the year's highlights was a case of Paul Jaboulet Aîné Hermitage La Chapelle 1961 that brought a record $252,000 (up 462 percent) in November at a NYWinesChristie's Los Angeles sale. This December, Christie's broke new ground with an auction of rare spirits and brandies—the first such sale in Manhattan since the end of Prohibition. All told, 100 lots of whiskies, Cognac, Armagnac, Calvados and Chartreuse sold above estimate for $304,800. The showstopper was a 729-bottle "library" of single malts, vatted and blended whiskies that went to an anonymous buyer on the telephone for $102,000.
As has been the case for several years running, it has become increasingly difficult to snare bargains in a seller's market. However, savvy collectors who attend an auction in person may encounter the occasional deal. In November, a case of Château Lynch-Bages 1966 sold for $1,121 (down 82 percent) at Morrell & Company (which nonetheless reported a 42 percent increase in sales). At Acker Merrall & Condit, a dozen bottles of Quinta do Noval Nacional Vintage Port 1994 sold for $8,470 (down 56 percent).
But sometimes, value is only qualified. At Hart Davis Hart last February, a melchior (18L) of Château Cheval-Blanc 2000 sold for a record $38,240. A smaller, 15L (nebuchadnezzar) of Cheval-Blanc '00 commanded $45,030 in June 2006, making this a steal ... relatively speaking.
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