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Millennial Auction Tops $14 Million

Peter D. Meltzer
Posted: November 22, 1999

A spectacular 48,000-bottle private wine collection belonging to Norwegian businessman Christen Sveaas sold at Sherry-Lehmann with Sotheby's in New York for $14.4 million over Nov. 19 and 20, surpassing presale estimates and setting a world auction record.

Sveaas himself established the previous record of $11.3 million when he sold 19,000 rare bottles at Christie's London in 1997. (While Sveaas's name was kept officially confidential at both auctions, Wine Spectator reported his identity prior to this sale.)

The monumental collection, billed as the "Millennium Cellar," juxtaposed historic treasures, 20th century classics and recent vintages of classified growths. Early on, a single bottle of Chbteau Lafite Rothschild 1811 commanded $20,700. A case of Chbteau Mouton-Rothschild 1945 was later snapped up for a staggering $80,600, and a dozen bottles of Chbteau Cheval-Blanc 1990 fetched a hefty $8,625. California cult wines also generated heated bidding, as did hard-to-come-by Rhtne reds.

Rarities commanded top dollar, occasionally exceeding the third-quarter 1999 Wine Spectator Auction Index by as much as 100 percent. Pristine provenance and superb condition contributed to the stellar prices. "It will be a long time before you see a cellar like this come on the market again," said Jean-Luc Le Du, sommelier of Daniel in New York.

But people-watchers hoping to catch celebrity collectors in action would have been disappointed. The majority of the lots went to anonymous buyers who submitted bids via telephone and fax. But the small quotient of private buyers, restaurateurs and wine dealers who attended the sale in person managed to snare a few trophies and even the occasional bargain.

The huge quantity of case lots, some containing as many as 35 dozen bottles in a single parcel, often sold at a substantial disparity in price. Numerous offerings from 1995 to 1997 passed altogether. Chbteau Pitrus 1989 ranged from an astonishing $23,000 to $11,500 per dozen. Lafite 1996 peaked at $4,600 per case and bottomed out at $2,645. Dominus Estate 1994 sold for anywhere from $2,070 to $1,380 per dozen.

Will the lofty bids impact on future prices? Many seasoned auction-goers felt that the results were something of an aberration. Thanks to the exalted reputation of the consignment and an all-out marketing effort by Sherry-Lehmann with Sotheby's (including an elaborate Web site), the sale set its own momentum, much like a highly publicized auction of a superstar's possessions.

Prices like these haven't been seen since the last Sveaas sale and the celebrated 1997 Sotheby's auction of Andrew Lloyd Webber's collection. In fact, at that time most rarities commanded a slightly higher premium and haven't rebounded until now. While bona fide treasures may continue to soar, mainstream blue-chip wines are likely to trade at the levels they experienced earlier this fall -- well below the "Millennium Cellar" hammer prices. What's more, buyers are reluctant to consistently pay elevated prices for new releases when they can purchase mature wines of equal quality for less.

It is further worth noting that prices in this sale were driven primarily by American collectors. (In the aftermath of extreme volatility in Asian financial markets in the fall of 1997, a wide sector of fine wine buyers disappeared from the auction scene and are yet to return.) Equally significant was the 91 percent sold rate, demonstrating the auction market's ability to digest vast quantities of collectible wine without a hiccup.

"I never dreamt they'd achieve such high prices given the volume of the consignment," said veteran collector Marty Michaelson, a regular on the New York fine wine circuit. The consignor stood a real chance of taking a major loss on his gamble. Despite the somewhat spotty performance of his younger wines, Sveaas was all smiles when spotted in the salesroom. "We're doing all right, no?" he beamed.

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To learn more about Christen Sveaas:

  • Nov. 18, 1999
    The Man Behind the Millennium Cellar

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