Updated: Dec. 14, 3:00 p.m.
"An auction’s success is ultimately about the product," Chris Munro, head of wine auctions at Christie's, told Wine Spectator. "Of course, we all love to host in-person client dinners sharing wine with producers or consignors, but most buyers are keen to pick up the very best wines the world has to offer."
Like most sectors of the wine industry, auction houses have been dramatically impacted by the pandemic. Beginning in March, auctioneers have taken most sales online. But the change has largely accelerated a trend of recent years. And as live events quietly resume in cities like Hong Kong and London, virtual strategies are becoming a permanent asset.
"We have a vibrant market with strong prices—and some records—during COVID," Jamie Ritchie, worldwide head of Sotheby’s wine, told Wine Spectator. "We have younger buyers coming into the market, with 60 percent of new buyers in their thirties or forties, and our traditional buyers embrace the digital tools." Ritchie says that this remote transition achieved what would've taken two to three years for his team in just a matter of months.
Christie's also saw an increase in international participation as wine buyers became more aware of the ease of taking part in an online sale run out of New York. Wine lovers from over 27 countries, 34 percent of whom were first-time buyers, attended the online sale of the Benjamin Ichinose Collection in July. The sale of the California wine collector's cellar brought $2.4 million, the highest total ever for an online sale by Christie's.
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Despite the pandemic, Acker Wines is on track to have its best year ever. In 2019, Acker totaled $91 million in auction sales and, according to chairman John Kapon, they are projected to see $120 million in sales by the end of 2020, thanks in part to Burgundian gems. Acker's most recent auction, the "Holy Grail of Burgundy," took place Nov. 19 and 20, and realized $13.95 million in sales. Some highlights included six bottles of Domaine Leroy Musigny 2002, which sold for $136,400, and a case of Armand Rousseau Chambertin-Clos de Bèze 1991 that fetched $124,000.
Kapon credits the tremendous success to people being at home more and the auction house's ability to reach clients all over the world. "Our state-of-the-art online platform, including our app, has made it very convenient for people to participate, no matter where they are," he told Wine Spectator.
Chicago-based auction house Hart Davis Hart (HDH) saw some rare sells too. The top lots of the year included a Methuselah (six-liter bottle) of 1999 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti La Tâche, which sold for $107,550 over the summer, and six magnums of 1970 Pétrus that sold for nearly $60,000 at a recent auction. In 2019, HDH auctioned $59.6 million over the course of seven wine auctions, and this year, they have sold $48.6 million over the course of eight auctions. Their last auction, on Dec. 18, is projected to help them end the year at approximately $60 million in auction sales. The sale is from the historical collection of Joseph Phelps' personal estate.
"With collectors spending more time on their collections and consuming more wine at home, it has impacted the demand at auction," Marc Smoler, senior vice president of client services at HDH, told Wine Spectator. "In addition to increased participants, the amount of live bidding, versus absentee bidding, has increased significantly."
Zachys' management attributes some of the new buyers to the pandemic, but cautions not to give the situation all the credit. "Some of this increase would have happened anyway," Charles Antin, head of auction sales and auctioneer at Zachys, told Wine Spectator. He specifically pointed to the September sale from the cellar of Enoteca Pinchiorri, which brought in hundreds of new clients.
Antin projects that Zachys sales will reach $90 million by year's end. That's down from last year's industry-leading $121.5 million, but it surpasses the auction house's January predictions based on scheduled sales. He adds that prices of leading collectible wines have consistently risen this year.
Although auctions have changed in nature, wine preferences have not. According to the auctioneers, Burgundy and Bordeaux are still in high demand. Notable Burgundy producers include Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, Domaine Dujac and Domaine Armand Rousseau, while Pétrus and the first-growths still lead the way for Bordeaux. According to Kapon, the Rhône's Jean-Louis Chave, Piedmont''s Giacomo Conterno and Napa's Screaming Eagle are also in high demand.
"Clos Rougeard has affirmed itself as a 'here to stay' fine wine and Arnaud Ente has seen huge gains," said Antin. "The demand right now is all about rarity."
The optimism among auction houses is also fueled by a confidence in new strategies. According to Munro, Christie's used Zoom for events and webinars to promote their upcoming Hospices de Beaune sale on Dec. 13, and is considering using these webinars for other educational wine events. Kapon says that Acker will resume traditional auctions, but he expects to conduct more live-streamed events going forward. And Ritchie says Sotheby's will continue to maximize the benefits of a digital marketplace with different models of auctions and has also discussed helping struggling restaurants by selling wines from their cellars.
As the online wine market continues to grow, Zachys has become a successful model for virtual strategies. The New York–based auction house was one of the first to implement fully online live auctions from their home office in White Plains, with up to 150 people in a virtual room. This "Studio Sale" format allows for a live auctions without some of the associated expenses.
Still, Antin believes in-person events won't go away. "[Online auctions] will never completely replace live auctions," he said. "There’s nothing like everyone getting together in person. But it’s an arrow in our quiver now."