While 2018 was a volatile year for Wall Street, it was a winning year for wine auctions. Bidders paid record prices for a host of rarities ranging from Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Romanée-Conti 1945 to Sassicaia 1985 to The Macallan 60-year-old Whisky 1926.
In 2018, worldwide wine-auction totals (culled from sales conducted in the U.S., U.K., Geneva, Hong Kong and Shanghai markets, plus online sales) rose an impressive 26 percent to $479.7 million, up from $381.7 million in 2017, and narrowly eclipsing the previous global record of $478 million in 2011. The last quarter of 2018 more than matched the impressive performances in the first half and third quarter of the year.
Sales in the U.S. climbed nearly 20 percent over 2017 to $222 million. The combined London and Geneva markets rose 12 percent to $46.4 million. Hong Kong and Shanghai soared 40 percent to $137.2 million. Online totals rose a hefty 30 percent to $74.9 million, signaling the increased popularity of digital bidding.
Among the major auction houses, Acker Merrall & Condit led the pack with $105.2 million in overall sales, followed by Sotheby's at $98.1 million and Zachys at $80.7 million. Hart Davis Hart realized $67.9 million in live auction sales, a record for them, and another $9.2 million in auctions on their mobile app, the highest combined domestic tally. For the eighth year in a row, the firm sold 100 percent of the lots on offer.
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What was driving the auction market? "I think the interest in the Burgundy market has brought the demand, as more people realize how great and rare these wines are, and the high prices have brought supply," said Jamie Ritchie, worldwide head of Sotheby's Wine, in an email. "People who purchase Burgundy generally buy it with the intention of drinking it, so they pay even closer attention to provenance and condition, which also gets reflected across the entire market, making mature Bordeaux and other wines more valuable."
Jeff Zacharia, president of Zachys, concurred. "In 2017, we sold more Burgundy [by value] than Bordeaux for the first time ever, and that trend continued in 2018. What's more, all of our top 10 wines in 2018 were Burgundy."
The year's top selling bottle was not a wine, but a whiskey. At Christie's London last November, a lot of the exceedingly rare The Macallan 1926 60-Year-Old whisky, presented in a unique bottle painted by Irish artist Michael Dillon, sold for more than $1.5 million. It was the fourth bottle of The Macallan 1926 to go on the block in 2018, with the others selling for between $843,299 to $1.2 million.
Making major headlines at a Sotheby's New York in October were two extremely scarce 750ml bottles of DRC Romanée-Conti 1945 (only 600 bottles were made), which shattered all previous records for wine lots. They sold for a staggering $558,000 and $496,000 respectively, far exceeding the prior top wine price of $310,700 paid for a jeroboam of Château Mouton-Rothschild 1945 at Sotheby's in 2007.
The first bottle of '45 DRC went to an anonymous bidder from Asia. The second was snapped up by veteran American collector and real-estate investor Rob Rosania. For a large part, provenance accounted for the stratospheric prices. All the wines in the sale were consigned from the personal cellar of famed Beaune viticulteur Robert Drouhin, whose family was a one-time distributor of DRC. The auction brought in a total of $7.3 million, more than five times the high estimate.
Case lots of DRC sold at a premium throughout the year. At Christie's London last October, a dozen bottles of DRC Romanée-Conti 1988 brought a record $379,008 against a pre-sale high estimate of $250,000.
Rarely seen DRCs were offered in full force at Acker Merrall & Condit's "Time Capsule" auction in November, consigned by an unnamed East Coast collector. A 12-bottle lot of DRC Romanée-Conti 1980, selling for $235,600, was followed by a dozen bottles of the 1982 at $173,600.
Zachys October sale "The Vault III" topped $20 million, the highest individual tally of the year. The auction set new records for bottles from G. Roumier, Armand Rousseau and Jean-Louis Chave. But it was Zachys' Holiday Sale in late November that established an American first for the most expensive California wine ever sold: A six-liter bottle of the celebrated Heitz Martha's Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 1974, one of only three made, sold for $96,330 against a top estimate of $80,000.
Hart Davis Hart's "Celebration of Bordeaux" auction in November showed Bordeaux still sells too. The firm offered 1,461 lots of Bordeaux, which brought in more than $5.3 million in sales against a pre-sale estimate of $3.7 million to $5.5 million. The auction was choc-a-bloc with treasures: six magnums of Château Pétrus 2006 that sold for $28,680 (the pre-sale estimate was $16,000-24,000); six bottles of Château Léoville Las Cases 1986 which brought in $4,182 (estimate $1,600-2,400); and a double-magnum of Château Trotanoy 1982 which realized $4,541 (estimate $1,900-2,800).
Fortified wines and pre-Prohibition whiskey are becoming frequent components of wine auctions. Although expensive, they boast a longer shelf life than table wine, once opened. In December at the joint Christie's and Wally's New York sale, a 5-gallon demijohn of Old Sercial Madeira 1846 from The Liberty Hall Museum Collection of Historic Madeira sold for $39,200. A bottle of Lenox Madeira 1798 fetched $15,925 against an estimate of $6,000-8,000. Twelve quarts of pre-Prohibition Old Crow Bourbon 1912 sold for $22,050 against an estimate of $8,500-$10,000.
Stock market jitters have prompted many auction-goers to question the future of collectible wine in 2019. A bullish John Kapon, CEO of Acker Merrall & Condit, believes that history has proven any decreases in wine values are merely short-term hiccups, and that the world's finest and rarest wines continue to be not only great beverages, but also great assets. "The [wine] market remains firm, active and healthy, and we expect another banner year," he said in an email.
Sotheby's Jamie Ritchie sounded a more cautious note. "In the short term the wine market tends to remain strong, but in the longer term it reacts to the financial markets and would be affected by uncertainty and volatility," he said.
A classic wine remains a classic wine regardless of price. The question remains at what point it becomes a buy or a sell.