Auction Houses Shift Online but See Continued Demand for Collectible Wines

Two months since going remote, auction houses see results, while raising funds for hospitality workers affected by the COVID-19 pandemic

Auction Houses Shift Online but See Continued Demand for Collectible Wines
Auctioneers like Acker have shifted operations online during the pandemic. (Courtesy Acker)
Jun 10, 2020

The auction market for collectible fine wine is not immune to world events, including a pandemic and a global economy in dire straits. But a successful shift to online bidding in recent years has provided a much-needed shield for the auction industry. Bidding was forced to go remote two months ago, but leading auction houses report continued strong demand for fine wine lots. And while preparing for a post-pandemic world, auction houses are also joining forces with hospitality organizations to raise funds for COVID-19 relief.

Zachys hosted its first live-streaming auction on May 8. The skeleton crew was fully masked, gavel in hand, by 6:30 a.m. in White Plains, N.Y., for "The Ruby Collection Part IV". The event was scheduled as an evening sale in Hong Kong, 12 hours ahead. The virtual auction room was filled with bidders from 20 countries and raised more than $3.3 million. Some highlights included three bottles of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Echézeaux 1990, which sold for $64,000, and six bottles of Château Latour 1961, which realized $32,000.

Zachys followed that sale up with an online U.S.-based sale of 12,000 bottles from a single American cellar on May 28. "The ability to have an auction in Hong Kong, but an auctioneer from New York, or have an auction without a print catalog, as we did on May 28, is something new that will come from this," Zachys president Jeff Zacharia told Wine Spectator. "But I see these as additions to our live [and] online auctions, not replacements."

Acker has also seen strong results. A New York auction on May 15 and 16 raised an estimated $3.7 million in sales and set numerous records. Two bottles of DRC La Tâche 1962 fetched $74,400, while six magnums of Château La Mission Haut-Brion 1989 sold for $40,000.

According to Acker chairman John Kapon, their two recent New York online auctions had 25 percent more bidders than similar events last year that included in-person bidding. Acker has also introduced weekly web auctions that Kapon says are bringing in substantial sales.

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Sotheby's is reporting strong demand as well, with more than $4.5 million in online auction sales already this year, and an estimated $3.5 million in sales scheduled between now and the end of June. By comparison, their 2019 online sales achieved a total of $2 million. Sotheby's is also expanding its client base, with 30 percent of the lots going to new bidders.

The unwavering thirst of collectors is good news as Sotheby's has four summer sales scheduled that executives expect will fetch between $25 to $34 million total, including a live, in-person auction in Hong Kong. "We are experiencing a digital transformation of the wine business, and this pandemic is accelerating the pace of change by five to 10 years," Sotheby's Wine chairman Jamie Ritchie told Wine Spectator. "The digital revolution is here, and there are great opportunities for those who embrace it, and less so for those who are hesitant to adapt."

Stepping up

Auction houses are also helping those hit hardest by the pandemic. Zachys partnered with Danny Meyer's Union Square Hospitality Group (USHG) earlier this month to sell rare wines from its restaurant's cellars to raise money for its employee-relief fund.

"We've had a long relationship with Danny and USHG, and of course we wanted to help when they had to close their restaurants," Zacharia said. The sale realized $905,906, of which all the proceeds plus an additional 6 percent of the buyers' premium went to the fund.

The giving doesn't stop there for Zachys. Their most recent auction benefited the James Beard Foundation Food and Beverage Industry Relief Fund, and two other organizations working with communities in Piedmont Italy affected by the COVID-19 crisis. Rare Champagne lots were donated by Billecart-Salmon. The auction raised over $70,000 for the beneficiaries.

"The U.S. being one of our core markets, it felt right to help our friends there as they have been so critical to the success of our house over the years," Mathieu Roland-Billecart, CEO of Champagne Billecart-Salmon told Wine Spectator.

On June 4, Zachys offered "experiential" lots for the first time, such as a trip to the 2021 Kentucky Derby, on behalf of organizations that have had to cancel their charity fundraising galas this year.

Acker partnered with the United Sommeliers Foundation (USF) for their auction last week to help raise funds for sommeliers furloughed due to the COVID-19 crisis. The auction raised $325,000, of which a little under 10 percent went to a similar organization in France, the Union de la Sommeliere Française. The two top lots were single bottles of Henri Jayer Vosne-Romanée Cros Parantoux 1990 and Henri Jayer Echézeaux 1993 from the personal collection of wine importer Martine Saunier, which sold for $18,600 and $10,540, respectively.

They were able to secure over $350,000 in consignments from wineries, including Screaming Eagle, Peter Michael, Mayacamas and Vega Sicilia. Some producers have also offered "experience lots" such as a tour of the Laurent-Perrier Champagne house and an exclusive virtual tasting from Lokoya..

"The restaurant industry has been so devastated, and is such an important part of the wine industry's essence and being," Kapon told Wine Spectator. "We wanted to do something to help people in our industry."

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