Morrell & Co.'s season opener, a monumental 23,369-bottle, 2,384-lot affair held at the Four Seasons restaurant in New York on Sept. 20 and 21, brought in just over $5 million (inclusive of the 15 percent buyer's premium) -- below the anticipated high of $8 million, but well within projections.
The sale ranks sixth overall in terms of commercial wine auction totals. (The $14.4 million "Millennium Sale" at Sherry-Lehmann with Sotheby's in November 1999 remains the front-runner.)
Aggressive estimates, high reserves and lukewarm consumer interest in the vast quantities of 1995 and 1996 claret on offer contributed to a 75 percent sold rate. Nevertheless, some very strong prices were achieved, ranging from a record $28,750 paid for a jeroboam of Château Pétrus 1961 (13 percent above the wine's average price in the Wine Spectator Auction Index for the second quarter of 2002) to an unprecedented $1,160 bid for six magnums of Château Léoville-Barton 1982 (an increase of 144 percent over its auction index average).
Although Nikos Antonakeas, Morrell's auction director, wouldn't confirm the identity of the seller, it is widely believed that the collection was consigned by Los Angeles—based Georges Marciano, co-founder of the Guess? clothing company and a veteran wine aficionado.
It was also rumored that Morrell had purchased the cellar outright or had offered a guarantee in order to snare the cellar from rival auction houses. "Absolutely not," said Antonakeas, who added that his firm was in full compliance with all disclosure regulations required by the New York Department of Consumer Affairs. Morrell's decision to drop its consignor's fee to zero percent was a major factor in the coup.
Far more important was the question of whether the market could absorb vast offerings from 72 disparate Bordeaux châteaus --including 5,375 bottles from the 1996 vintage, 4,740 bottles from 1995 and 3,191 from 1990. Unlike the Millennium Sale, this collection focused almost exclusively on claret produced in the past 20 years, with only a smattering of Burgundy and a small contingent of California and Italian labels. Many of the wines on offer were still available through traditional distribution channels.
To the chagrin of bargain hunters, it fast became apparent that each lot's low estimate was actually its reserve (the minimum price below which the wine would not be sold). Often, the reserves proved higher than the average prices listed in the Wine Spectator Auction Index. The formula worked best when a relatively small quantity of hard-to-come-by wine was offered, but it boomeranged when large volumes of wine perceived to be overvalued came on the block.
Demand for a single jeroboam of Pichon-Longueville-Lalande 1961 sent bids soaring over the top estimate to fetch $2,990. But bidders balked at 24-bottle case-lots of Pichon-Lalande 1996 with a low estimate of $2,000.
"We've run out of steam," lamented auctioneer David Molyneux-Berry when the crowd failed to place a single bid on 32 cases of Château Mouton-Rothschild 1996 bearing a low estimate of $1,900. The 26 lots of Château Haut-Brion 1995 met a similar fate, as did 32 lots of Château Cheval-Blanc 1995.
Château Pétrus 1995 and 1996 reflected the market's weak appetite. The sale contained more bottles of those two vintages than were sold at auction in the preceding year, a difficult sell in the best of circumstances. Despite the wines' high scores on Wine Spectator's tasting scale, only a fraction of the 30 lots of 1995 Pétrus (with a reserve of $7,200) found buyers, and all 20 cases of the 1996 (with a low estimate of $6,200) were passed up entirely. In contrast, Lafite and Latour 1996 managed to find buyers.
Some of the sale's best values were classic clarets tagged with more conservative estimates. A jeroboam of Mouton-Rothschild 1959 was snapped up for $10,350, down 25 percent, and a case of Pétrus 1964 commanded $11,500, down 10 percent.
Astute bidders took advantage of price spreads that occurred when enthusiasm for a particular lot waned. Château Montrose 1990 ranged from a high of $3,680 to a low of $2,760. Château Monbousquet 1995 represented good value at $460 per dozen, down 25 percent.
Molyneux-Berry predicted that in the aftermath of the 2002 Bordeaux vintage, demand for 1995 and 1996 clarets would accelerate.
Regardless, observed Antonakeas, "This was a unique situation that has never been tested before. Demand wasn't there to absorb it all, but the unsold wine will surely find a market at auction."
TOP 10 LOTS
|DRC La Tâche 1990||1 jeroboam||$7,475||+50%|
|Ducru-Beaucaillou 1982||12 bottles||$2,530||+54%|
|Latour 1961||6 magnums||$24,150||-34%|
|Le Pin 1989||12 bottles||$11,500||+38%|
|Léoville-Barton 1982||6 magnums||$1,610||+144%|
|Léoville-Poyferré 1996||12 bottles||$690||+40%|
|Margaux 1983||12 bottles||$4,370||+45%|
|Opus One 1982||1 imperial||$1,955||+183%|
|Pétrus 1961||1 jeroboam||$28,750||+13%|
|Yquem 1983||12 bottles||$5,980||+81%|
TOP 5 COMMERCIAL AUCTION TOTALS
1. Sherry-Lehmann With Sotheby's, "Millennium Sale" (Sveaas Collection), Nov. 19—20, 1999 -- $14.4 million
2. Christie's London, "Grand Cru Sale" (Sveaas collection), Sept. 18—19, 1997 -- $11.2 million
3. Zachys-Christie's, Dec. 5—6, 1997 -- $6.5 million
4. Sotheby's London, Andrew Lloyd Webber collection, May 20—21, 1997 -- $6 million
5. Sherry-Lehmann with Sotheby's, Sept. 17-18, 1999 -- $5.8 million
6. Morrell & Co., Sept. 20—21, 2002 -- $5 million
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