Updated March 12, 2018
The growing U.S. economy and a surging stock market that seems to be setting new highs every week are making wine collectors bullish. In 2017, worldwide wine-auction totals (culled from sales conducted in the U.S., U.K. and Hong Kong markets, plus online sales) rose a strong 12.7 percent to $381.7 million, up from $338.7 million in 2016. (Global wine-auction sales peaked at $478 million in 2011.) The last quarter of 2017 matched the solid performances of the first half and third quarter.
Overall, the 2017 auction season was characterized by a spate of single-owner consignments from celebrated collectors and winery-direct offerings that sent prices soaring over estimates because of their pristine provenance. A robust stock market (the Dow Jones Industrial Average rose 25 percent in 2017) likely also contributed to bidder confidence.
The American market was back on top. Sales in the U.S. soared 10 percent to $185 million, with an average price per lot of $3,285. The combined London and Geneva market climbed 7 percent, to $41.3 million, and Hong Kong climbed 6 percent, to $97.8 million, with a price per lot of $5,643. Internet totals were up a hefty 44.4 percent at $57.6 million.
For the global auction players, Acker Merrall & Condit and Zachys’ totals ran neck and neck, realizing $80.3 million and $79.3 million, respectively. For seven of the past eight years, Chicago’s Hart Davis Hart has dominated the domestic auction scene. In 2017, HDH posted U.S. sales of $48.7 million, and achieved an impressive 100 percent sell-through rate. Winebid.com continued to earn a steady annual total with its 2017 $28 million sum.
Jamie Ritchie, CEO of Sotheby’s Wine, believes that provenance continues to be key, and that Burgundy is driving sales. “The true strength of the market, on a global basis, is for mature wines that are ready to enjoy today, come with excellent provenance and are in very good condition. This is true of wines from all regions, but red Burgundy continues to be the greatest focus of the market, with DRC prices advancing ever higher, and a broader range of growers attracting more attention.”
Much of the past year’s elevated auction results were driven by staggering prices achieved by wines from Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. John Kapon, CEO of Acker, Merrall & Condit, estimated that the DRC label rose by about 30 percent in 2017. At a Sotheby’s auction in October, six bottles of DRC Romanée-Conti 1996 exceeded the top estimate of $90,000 to command $134,750. DRC Montrachet also made an impressive splash at Christie’s-Wally’s New York auction Dec. 8, where a case of the 1990 sailed over the top estimate of $60,000 to fetch $104,125.
Eric Bradley, P.R. director for Heritage Auctions, believes that demand for DRC wines resulted in a trickle-down effect on prices of less famous producers. “Clients that previously focused on DRC are lining up for the next generation of Burgundy domaines," he told Wine Spectator via email. "Young stars such as Pierre-Yves Colin Morey doubled their presale estimates in Heritage's sales.”
Classified Bordeaux enjoyed price gains too. Bids on Châteaus Lafite Rothschild and Mouton-Rothschild were generally quite aggressive. At Hart Davis Hart in December, a case of Château Le Pin 1982 sold for a record $155,350 against a top estimate of $100,000. Anyone looking for relative values should explore Bordeaux "Super Seconds."
Select New World wines also made headlines. At an Acker New York auction in November, a rare 6-magnum case of Screaming Eagle 1992 sold for a record $148,200 against an estimate of $100,000 to $150,000. At the same sale, a half-bottle of Sine Qua Non El Corazon rosé 1998 fetched $1,729 against a high estimate of $1,500.
Under the circumstances, it’s no surprise that auction houses are bullish about 2018’s prospects looking ahead.
What to Remember from 2017
In other auction news, Zachys opened a Washington, D.C., bureau in late October. Their first sale in the nation's capital brought $5.4 million, near the top estimate. Twelve bottles of Armand Rousseau Chambertin 2010 sold for $34,440.
In a first for the auction circuit, Hart Davis Hart offered an entire barrel (equal to 300 bottles) of 2016 Château Montrose in November. Bidding opened at $50,000 and the lot sold for $119,500.
Wally's Wine Auctions re-entered the auction fray after a year’s hiatus, partnering with Christie’s New York. Their December sale brought a combined total of $6.2 million.
Burgundy's Hospices de Beaune charity wine auction conducted by Christie’s was held Nov. 19. Thanks to a strong vintage, it raised a whopping $16 million, eclipsing last year’s total of $8.9 million.
Want to get the latest news on collectible wines and the auction market? Sign up for Wine Spectator's free Collecting e-mail newsletter and get a new top-rated wine review, collecting Q&As and more, delivered straight to your inbox every other week!