In a column from November 2009, European bureau chief James Suckling asked, "Who knows how long it will be before Hong Kong surpasses New York as the center of the wine auction world?" By some metrics, the answer may be the first quarter of 2010. The combined tally of the four auctions held in Hong Kong from January through March bested that of the eight conducted in the United States by 17 percent--$28,501,810 to $24,343,625.
Nonetheless, sales in the U.S. are more robust than where they were a year ago. Prices for wines tracked by the Wine Spectator Auction Index in the first quarter of 2010 rose a solid 6 percent from the previous quarter, continuing an upward trend that began more than six months earlier. In comparison, the Dow Jones Industrial Average gained 4.1 percent in value over the same time period. "This points to the fact that the market is strong, and high value wines are in great demand," observed Charles Curtis, head of Christie's North American wine sales.
Overall, more lots of wine were still sold in U.S. markets. Domestically, the eight sales in the United States cleared 8,881 lots, amounting to an average price per lot of $2,741. Compared to the $2,098 average price per lot in the first quarter of 2009, along with an increase in the sell-through rate from 92 percent then to 96 percent in first quarter 2010, the U.S. auctions would appear to be operating at a healthier clip than they were last year.
Roughly two-thirds of the wines tracked in the first quarter of 2010 exceeded their averages from the fourth quarter 2009. For example, Château Laville Haut Brion Pessac-Léognan White 1995 averaged $252 per bottle, 358 percent above the previous index average from the second half of last year. Château Pétrus 1947 averaged $7,260 per bottle, up 332 percent, and Salon Brut Blanc de Blancs Champagne Le Mesnil 1985 averaged $2,723 per magnum, up 181 percent.
Paul Hart, CEO of Chicago's Hart Davis Hart, attributed the continued turnaround to domestic buyers. "Results in the first quarter of 2010 were driven by strong bidding from collectors in Asia, Europe and South America, but the core of the market continues to be U.S. collectors."
Hong Kong, however, attracted bigger spenders. The average price per lot in Hong Kong amounted to $7,149, almost triple the U.S. figure. "The appetite for fine wine in Hong Kong is insatiable," remarked John Kapon, president of Acker's auction division. His firm set a world record there on March 27 for a Lafite "superlot" consisting of 70 bottles spanning select vintages from 1799-2003. Estimated to sell at U.S. $125,000 to $175,000, it brought in $330,155.
No wonder many prominent U.S. collectors are now looking east when it comes to consigning their cellars in the hope of realizing higher prices for premium offerings. There may ultimately be fewer auctions in the United States if the trend toward selling in Hong Kong increases. Conversely, it is possible that as the Asian market matures, local prices will soften. All eyes will be on the results from the second quarter of 2010 to see if the current pace will continue.
Notable Sales in the Domestic Market:
• At NYWinesChristie's on Feb. 27, four bottles of DRC Romanée-Conti 1990 commanded $78,000, up 81 percent from the fourth-quarter 2009 average.
• On Feb. 27, 12 bottles of Château Palmer 2000 sold for $3,172, up 105 percent.
• On March 20, Aulden Cellars-Sotheby's sold a case of Château de Beaucastel Châteauneuf-du-Pape 2001 for $2,723, up 161 percent.
• Three cases of Château Lafite Rothschild 1982 sold for $45,410 each at Hart Davis Hart in March, rebounding from a low of $21,789 at Acker Merrall & Condit in March 2009 during the depths of the recession.
• At Zachys' San Francisco auction on March 12, the top-selling lot was a jeroboam of Armand Rousseau Chambertin 1959 that brought $48,400 - more than $8,000 above the presale high estimate.