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Bogus Burgundies?

Rare bottles are pulled from a London auction after collectors raise questions about authenticity

Peter Hellman
Posted: February 9, 2012

Spectrum Wine Auctions hoped to make a big splash at its debut London auction Feb. 8, but is now facing tough questions after it and its local partner, wine merchant Vanquish, withdrew 21 lots of rare Burgundies at the last minute. Several longtime wine collectors raised concerns about the authenticity of wines from Domaine de la Romanée-Conti and Comte Georges de Vogüé in recent days. Staff at the two domaines expressed concern over the lots to Vanquish.

And one collector alleges that the wine may have been indirectly sourced from Rudy Kurniawan. The Los Angeles collector's consignments to other auction houses were, in at least two previous cases, withdrawn due to questions of authenticity.

The auction was an attractive one for Burgundy lovers, and it was California-based Spectrum's first in London since partnering with Vanquish, which is headed by former Christie's North America wine director Richard Brierley. The catalog offered 177 lots, including such rarities as seven bottles of Comte Georges de Vogüé Musigny Blanc 1962, and a case of DRC's Romanée-Conti 1971, which carried the highest estimate in the auction at almost $127,000.

Those lots were among a total of 21—13 including Romanée-Conti wines, eight of Vogüé—which were withdrawn from the auction. This was done after questions were raised about the authenticity of certain bottles based on catalog photos. From the podium, Brierley explained why he would be suddenly skipping some lots. "These have been withdrawn on very good authority," he said.

“We did our normal due diligence and overdid it beforehand,” Spectrum president Jason Boland told Wine Spectator moments after the auction ended. “We were up until 3 and 4 a.m., doing everything we possibly could, debating what to do. We pulled them because the domaines questioned them. They have the best experience to tell us what is right or wrong.”

The situation was aggravated, in the eyes of some American collectors, because the catalog supplied no information about the provenance of most of the wines offered, and none at all on the withdrawn lots. Spectrum and Vanquish have refused to clarify allegations by a Los Angeles collector, Don Cornwell, that some lots originated indirectly from Kurniawan, who skyrocketed from obscurity to become both a prominent collector and seller of wines a decade ago. Both Christie's and Acker Merrall & Condit had to withdraw lots consigned by Kurniawan in 2007 and 2008 respectively. Kurniawan also defaulted on a $10 million loan from Acker and he's being sued by collector Bill Koch for allegedly consigning counterfeit wines.

Cornwell claims that he was told by somebody at Spectrum that Kurniawan was behind some of the lots, and that a longtime associate of Kurniawan's was the consignor. Asked if that was so, Boland replied, “I think I’d rather not comment except to say that [Kurniawan] is not a consignor.” Kurniawan did not respond to two e-mails asking whether any of his wines were in the sale.

Geoffrey Troy, head of New York Wine Warehouse, also sounded a warning about the sale. Last July, Troy inspected a collection of DRC wines for a prospective buyer that were being stored in a Bronx temperature-controlled facility. At the inspection, the seller was represented by Brierley. One of the wines inspected, a magnum of Romanée-Conti 1971, was stamped with serial number 0048.

In the London auction catalog, a single magnum of the same wine (lot 100) is also identified as having serial number 0048. In an e-mail to Brierley the week before the sale, obtained by Wine Spectator, Troy asked if the Spectrum bottle was the same as the one inspected in the Bronx. Without answering the question directly, Brierley replied that “at the very least lot 100 will be withdrawn.” That was done. Troy says he learned that the magnum he inspected is still in the hands of his client, raising the question: How many magnums are stamped with number 0048?

Despite the negative publicity surrounding the withdrawals, bidders at the auction didn’t shy away from shelling out on the remaining lots of classic older vintages of Bordeaux and Burgundy. A jeroboam of DRC Romanée-Conti 1990 brought $63,676 against an estimate of $47,460. A single bottle of Romanée-Conti 1945 fetched $45,482, keeping with its presale estimate. There were numerous bargains, however, albeit at an elevated level. Six magnums of Château La Mission Haut-Brion 1961 sold for $34,567, a drop of 4 percent below the current Wine Spectator Auction Index average. Seven bottles of Henri Jayer Richebourg 1978 commanded $77,320 (down 17 percent). A single bottle of Château d’Yquem 1893 was another good deal, selling for more than $1,000 below the $5,750 estimate for $4,548. [Winning bids are inclusive of the 15 percent buyer’s premium, whereas estimates are exclusive of the premium.]

With reporting by Peter D. Meltzer.

Christopher Sihler
Las Vegas, NV —  February 9, 2012 2:45pm ET
Dirty business.
Hoyt Hill
Nashville, TN USA —  February 9, 2012 5:15pm ET
No all of Rudy Kurnianwan's wines were bogus, because he used to buy a lot from me!
And he never failed to pay!
Scott Ercit
Canada —  February 11, 2012 7:23pm ET
But, Mr. Hill, one lot will only go so far!

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