During the first half of 2018, collectible wine auctions witnessed unprecedented prices and myriad new records in New York, Chicago and Hong Kong sales. Passion for Bordeaux gave way to feverish demand for Burgundy, and demand for vintage whisky skyrocketed. A relatively stable stock market contributed to the bidding euphoria.
With the auction market booming, many collectors decided that this was an apt time to sell. They were not disappointed. Here's a snapshot of the first six months of 2018.
• In June, a consignment of the last bottles from the legendary Henri Jayer's personal collection was sold by Baghera Wines in Switzerland for $34.7 million, a record price for a single sale.
• Vintage Port, which had been in the doldrums, staged a comeback, with Dow's Vintage Port leading the way. At auction, the 2011 vintage has risen more than 200 percent from its release price, to nearly $1,800 per case.
• Prices soared for Burgundy, with 12 bottles of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Romanée-Conti 1971 realizing $407,489, triple the high estimate, at Sotheby's March sale of the estate of Jerry Perenchio in Hong Kong.
• A rare bottle of 1926 Macallan whisky sold for a whopping $1.1 million at Bonhams Hong Kong on May 18.
Acker Merrall & Condit hit a new benchmark during the first half of 2018—total cumulative auction sales of $1 billion since the firm's inception in 1998. "To be here after that very small start is unbelievable," said Acker CEO John Kapon via email.
In the first two quarters of 2018, Acker clocked nearly $60 million in global sales, making the New York-based firm the top earner of the year to date. In terms of dollar value, sales were up 33 percent over 2017. Highlights of their June sale included a 6-bottle case of DRC Romanée-Conti 1990, still wrapped in the original metal bands, which sold for $124,000.
"The world's most important wine brand [at auction], Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, remains firmly and clearly in the No. 1 position, the same position it held during the comparable period of 2017," said Kapon. "Demand has only grown and accelerated since then. Collectors worldwide seek and will continue to seek DRC above all for their cellars."
All four of Hart Davis Hart's (HDH) auctions in 2018 were 100 percent sold. Sales were up 41.8 percent over 2017, for a first-half total of $34.4 million, the largest domestic tally. HDH chairman Paul Hart reports that more lots are hammering above the mid-range estimate and even the high estimate. "We've seen an increase in the value of bids and quantity of bidders participating," he said via email.
"The top lots by price and top lots to exceed estimates in 2018 have all been Burgundy, in particular DRC, Henri Jayer, Domaine Leroy and Armand Rousseau," he added. At a May sale, a case of Domaine Leroy Musigny 1994 sold for $101,575, well above its high estimate of $45,000, while a case of Domaine Dujac Clos St.-Denis 1990 sold for $71,000, more than double the high estimate. Hart says he continues to see an increase of year-over-year sales, with Burgundy and Bordeaux leading the pack.
In a bow to technology, all bidding at HDH is now routed through their mobile app and website. The majority of their clients use the devices to place live and absentee bids.
In the first half of 2018, Sotheby's global sales rose to $54.2 million from $33.7 million in the same period of 2017, an increase of more than 60 percent, largely because of two important single-owner sales. The first, The Philanthropist Cellar, was conducted in Hong Kong and fetched $16.2 million. The sale was led by a case of DRC Romanée-Conti 1971 selling for $376,144. Top Bordeaux included Château Lafleur 1982, with two 6-magnum lots each fetching $133,218 against an estimate of $42,000 to $60,000.
The second mega-cellar sale hailed from the estate of the late entrepreneur Jerry Perenchio. It was divided between Hong Kong and New York, together totaling $12 million. A very rare case of Domaine Ponsot Clos de la Roche Vielles Vignes 1985 achieved $123,000—more than double its high estimate of $48,000.
"So long as the economy continues to be stable, it should be a very strong season with great collections attracting strong demand," said Jamie Ritchie, worldwide head of Sotheby's Wine, via email. He believes that whisky, both Scottish and Japanese, will feature more strongly in all future sales.
"It's a seller's market," enthused Zachys' senior international specialist, Charles Antin, via email. "The appetite for fine wine grows and grows." At the end of the first half of 2018 Zachys sales totaled $34.6 million, which included live and online auctions. "Through January to June 2017, sales were $29,762,074. We held our largest auction ever in June and our longest in May. Both were 99 percent sold. We couldn't do that if the demand wasn't there."
Zachys now sells more Burgundy by value at auction than Bordeaux. Antin expects the trend to continue. "Burgundy is on the top of everyone's wish list right now, and it's not like DRC is ever not on most collectors' wish lists, but the current demand is unprecedented. The rarest young and very old white Burgundies are seeing amazing results: Ramonet, DRC and, of course, Coche-Dury, to name a few."
Antin adds that he is advising potential consignors to take advantage of a hot Burgundy market. But he also says rare Bordeaux continues to deliver strong results.
After such a robust season, what upcoming events should wine collectors look to in the coming months?
As usual, activity kicks into high gear after Labor Day. The month of September will be buzzing with activity, with sales from Acker in New York on Sept. 9 and in Hong Kong on Sept. 22, from HDH in Chicago on Sept. 15, from Zachys in Hong Kong on Sept. 8 and in New York on Sept. 13 and 14, and from Sotheby's in New York on Sept. 22 and Hong Kong on Sept. 29 and 30.
One event already grabbing attention is Sotheby's planned sale of 100 lots of rare Domaine de la Romanée-Conti wines from the personal cellar of Burgundy vintner Robert Drouhin on Oct. 13 in New York.
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