Global sales of fine and rare wine at auction fell 13 percent this past year, from $389 million in 2012 to $337 million in 2013, according to figures released by the major commercial auction houses. It was the second consecutive annual drop following 2011's record $478 million in sales.
United States totals decreased by 6 percent, to $126 million from $134 million, and Hong Kong dropped a sharper 26 percent from $155 million to $115 million (all figures are listed in U.S. dollars).
"There was less wine on the marketplace in 2013, which meant that prices firmed up and stabilized," said Jamie Ritchie, president of Sotheby's Wine. Despite a drop in volume, the price per lot in 2013 remained virtually unchanged in the U.S. and Hong Kong ($2,689 and $6,301 respectively) compared to 2012 levels ($2,792 and $6,380). Demand for collectible wine remained strong in both markets, evidenced by healthy percent-sold rates of 95 percent in the U.S. and 94 percent in Hong Kong.
Christie's led the 2013 global auction market with $68 million in sales (excluding the $8.5 million Hospices de Beaune auction conducted by Christie's in Burgundy) followed by Acker Merrall & Condit with $63.8 million and Sotheby's with $57.8 million. Hart Davis Hart led the U.S. auction market with $36.07 million in revenues—a gain of 37 percent over 2012. The firm also laid claim to the year's highest-grossing U.S. auction, $6.4 million in May.
In Hong Kong, Sotheby's led the pack with a $12 million auction in October. In November, Wally’s, a newly formed Los Angeles-based auction house, made its New York debut with Crush Wines and attained the highest U.S. price per lot for the year, $4,387.
Among the year's trends, major auctioneers reported that provenance has become increasingly important to collectors. Awareness of wine counterfeiting has skyrocketed in the past few years, spurred by the arrest and trial of Rudy Kurniawan, who was convicted of selling counterfeit wines and defrauding a finance company in December.
Ritchie said that demand remains particularly strong for single-owner sales of great wines that are mature and have excellent provenance, especially among pedigreed Bordeaux. He cited a case of Château Haut-Brion 1989 consigned directly from the winery: It sold in Hong Kong for $66,360 (336 percent above its Wine Spectator Auction Index average) in October.
Another significant change to the market in 2013 was the resurgence of American buyers in the marketplace. "American [collectors] were up 20 percent in 2013 as far as overall share of dollars expended in our global market, while greater China remains relatively flat," said John Kapon, president of Acker Merrall & Condit's auction division.
"North and South American buyers were much more active and important in the U.S. market," said Sotheby's Ritchie. "While Asian buyers remain significant, they have become more price-sensitive."
After several years in the doldrums, older vintages of classified Bordeaux have enjoyed a comeback. "Recent releases of Bordeaux are so expensive compared to more mature vintages," said Kapon, "and buyers are wisely wondering why they should pay a premium for too-young-to-drink wines when older and more drinkable vintages of Bordeaux like 1986 and 1989 are available at auction at a better price."
Paul Hart, CEO of Hart Davis Hart, said that in addition to classified Bordeaux, which by his estimation are up 12 percent, top Italian wines (especially Bruno Giacosa Riserva), California cult wines and collectible Champagne performed well at auction throughout 2013.
"As expected, bidding for Burgundy remained strong in 2013," said Hart. "In February, a case of 1990 Cros Parantoux from Henri Jayer sold for $113,525." Consignments from top Burgundy producers like Ponsot, Dujac, Roulot and Liger-Belair sold exceptionally well to both Asian and U.S. collectors, but Domaine de la Romanée-Conti cornered most of the top 10 slots. At Zachys New York in March, a rare methuselah (6 liters) of DRC Romanée-Conti 1990 sold at the high end of its estimate to an anonymous bidder for $171,500. At Bonham's December sale in London, a case of Romanée-Conti from the 1988 vintage sold for $147,000.
Fierce bidding between Asian buyers pushed the price of a case of 1978 Romanée-Conti to an unprecedented high at Christie's Hong Kong sale in November, fetching a new world record of $476,280, more than triple the presale high estimate.
But while record prices captured headlines, there were relative bargains on the market. To cite a few: Château La Mission Haut-Brion 1986 was down 45 percent, to an average of $194 per bottle, Château d'Yquem 2007 was down 45 percent to $163 per bottle at Sotheby's, and Tenuta dell'Ornellaia Bolgheri Superiore Ornellaia 2005 was down 65 percent to $133 per bottle at Zachys.
The consensus among auctioneers is that demand will remain strong for mature Bordeaux and top Burgundy in 2014. Premium California wine should also strengthen. Ritchie believes there will still be a smaller volume of wine on the market, so prices will remain stable. "This includes Bordeaux, where we will see more 2009s come to market and some 2010s, which will increase volume and sales values, but pricing for these younger wines is likely to come under pressure."