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U.S. Auctions Heat Up in Third Quarter

With high demand from buyers from Asia and South America, auction prices are on the rise; American market is healthy, with increased value despite decreased number of sales

Peter D. Meltzer
Posted: October 12, 2010

Auction market wine prices gained traction in the third quarter of 2010, fueled by strong demand from buyers in Asia and South America. American wine sales tracked by Wine Spectator’s Auction Index database rose 9 percent in value from second quarter 2010 to third quarter 2010 after falling 3 percent from the first to second quarters. “It looks to be a tremendous fall season,” said John Kapon, president of Acker Merrall & Condit, echoing sentiments expressed by other auction directors.

Compared to 2009, auction houses are bringing in more money. A total of five auctions conducted in the U.S. from July through September 2010 brought $23 million. Another $20 million worth of fine wine sold in three Hong Kong auctions during the same period. By contrast, in the third quarter of 2009, seven U.S. sales brought in $17 million and Hong Kong realized $11 million in two auctions.

Still, fewer lots are being sold in the American market as more top consignments go to Hong Kong. In the United States, 6,669 lots were sold in the third quarter of 2010; in 2009, 8,705 lots were purchased and in 2008, that number exceeded 11,450. Despite the smaller number of lots sold, the domestic market does appear to be healthier, as a higher percentage of lots are finding buyers: Percent-sold rates in domestic auctions rose to 97.6 in the third quarter of 2010, up from 94.8 percent in the third quarter of 2009.

Jamie Ritchie, CEO of Sotheby’s wine department, said increased prices for wines are the result of a trickle-down effect: “The high prices paid for 2009 Bordeaux futures impacted on more mature Bordeaux vintages, particularly 1989, ’90, ’95 and ’96, which escalated in price.”

Wine collectors’ fixation on Château Lafite Rothschild continued unabated. In Hong Kong, where Lafite is particularly prized, a case from the 1986 vintage sold for $31,403 at an Acker auction, 48 percent above current U.S. levels. A double magnum from the 1995 vintage sold for $4,183 at a domestic Hart Davis Hart auction (up 71 percent). Even off-vintages of Lafite generated heated bidding. At Zachys, the 1981 hit a high of $908 per bottle (up 35 percent) and the 1988 sold for $960 per bottle at NewYorkWinesChristie’s (up 28 percent).

Given the comeback in auction prices, anyone wishing to pare down a sizable collection might consider making a consignment, especially if the wines were purchased a decade or more ago when prices were relatively cheap. Trophy labels like Lafite, Pétrus and increasingly, Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, are ideal candidates for market now. But there may not be a reason to rush.

According to Ritchie, the majority of the market has reached a temporary plateau. “Our outlook is that prices will now settle down at these new levels. We do not expect them to increase in the same way they did in the spring, with the exception of wines from the greatest domaines in Burgundy, where we anticipate prices will rise aggressively as these wines begin to see demand from both Asia and South American collectors.”

Notable gainers and losers in the third quarter:

• Château Latour 1959 averaged $2,723 per bottle, up 176 percent from the previous quarter

• DRC Romanée St.-Vivant 1999 averaged $1,992 per bottle, up 133 percent

• Armand Rousseau Gevrey-Chambertin Clos St.-Jacques 1990 averaged $1,210 per bottle, up 282 percent

• Armand Rousseau Chambertin 1990 averaged $2,496 per bottle, up 165 percent

• Clarendon Hills Astralis Clarendon 2002 was down 44 percent to a low of $184 per bottle

• J.-F. Coche-Dury Corton-Charlemagne 1995 sold for $1,150 per bottle, down 40 percent

More from WineSpectator.com

• The Auction Price Database has been updated with 3Q 2010 data. See how your wines have fared. (Members only)

• Get the latest on the world of collecting wine with Wine Spectator's free biweekly e-newsletter. Sign up now.

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