Buyer Beware

New book details the murky tale of the "Thomas Jefferson" bottles and the collector who is determined to prove they are fakes
May 23, 2008

Where there are objects of value, there will be attempts to counterfeit them, whether currency, paintings or wine. "Wine and Its Counterfeits," an 1876 pamphlet by James L. Denman, is only one example in a long history of books about adulteration and fraud.

Now a new alarm is at hand, in The Billionaire's Vinegar: The Mystery of the World's Most Expensive Bottle of Wine (Crown Publishers, $25). Benjamin Wallace, a freelance writer, traces the efforts of William Koch, an American billionaire and wine collector, to prove that a cache of 18th-century Bordeaux alleged to have belonged to Thomas Jefferson, are merely fakes, engineered by German wine merchant Hardy Rodenstock.

The story begins in 1985, at a Christie's wine auction in London. Christopher Forbes, bidding for his father, Malcolm, the wealthy publisher, paid $156,450 for a 1787 Lafite engraved with the initials "Th. J."—a record that still stands. Despite early doubts about their provenance (reported by Wine Spectator shortly after the sale), more so-called Jefferson bottles emerged on the market. Koch bought four, paying $400,000 for them. Later, convinced they were frauds, Koch spent another small fortune on private investigators, scientists and lawyers to prove his point.

Wallace follows the money, and the wine, offering readers a peek into the clubby world of wealthy collectors obsessed with old wines. Only Jefferson emerges with his reputation intact. Rodenstock is portrayed as a slick scoundrel, Christie's auctioneer Michael Broadbent as a willing dupe and Koch as a fanatic for revenge. "As with all successful cons, the mark and the grifter had been collaborators," Wallace writes. "It was the once-gullible Americans bringing a European manipulator to justice, a rare comeuppance for two centuries of Old World snobbery."

Though Wallace accepts Koch's accusation that the Jefferson bottles are fraudulent, there has been no conclusive determination of their authenticity, and Koch's lawsuits against Rodenstock (and against auction houses he alleges sold counterfeit wines) continue to wind their way through the courts. As a result, the book ends on an anti-climactic note. But wine lovers are left with a valuable lesson: Buy what you love, and drink what you buy.

The Billionaire's Vinegar: The Mystery of the World's Most Expensive Bottle of Wine
By Benjamin Wallace
(Crown Publishers, 366 pages, $25)

Crime Fraud Opinion

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