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The Man Behind the Millennium Cellar

Per-Henrik Mansson
Posted: November 18, 1999

This Friday and Saturday, Nov. 19 and 20, Sherry-Lehmann with Sotheby's in New York will offer some 48,000 bottles of wine from what the auction house is calling "the greatest private cellar in the world." While the identity of the owner of these wines has been kept officially confidential, Wine Spectator has learned that he is Christen Sveaas, a Norwegian businessman.

Sveaas is no newcomer to the wine auction business. According to multiple sources in the wine industry, he is the same man who lingered anonymously in the wings of the Christie's salesroom in September 1997 when the London auction house sold the first part of his collection for $11.3 million, which is still a record for a wine sale. This week's sale is expected to approach $10 million.

A media-shy financier, Sveaas has widespread industrial, high-tech, shipping and real estate interests in Norway and controls the Oslo-based Kistefos Industrial Group. He's reportedly a 43-year-old bachelor.

Sveaas declined to be interviewed before the New York sale. "It is my firm policy never to give interviews, especially not when it concerns something so private as one's wine cellar," he faxed Wine Spectator 10 days ago. In Norway, although he tries to keep a low public profile, he makes the newspaper when he buys an Aston Martin or shows up at horse races wearing dark glasses and smoking fine cigars.

The Christie's sale two years ago came just before the crash of the Asian economies, at a time when wine prices were at their height. When prices fell, he bought wines, some of which are now part of the Sotheby's sale, according to London traders. However, Serena Sutcliffe, head of Sotheby's international wine department, said that part of the collection being sold in New York was purchased by the consignor years ago.

Sveaas is gambling that the auction market is ripe again. The "Millennium Cellar," as Sotheby's dubbed the collection, has wine professionals on both sides of the Atlantic marveling at its depth. Among the more than 3,200 lots are vintages of Chbteau Lafite Rothschild from the 1800s, a 12-bottle lot of Chbteau d'Yquem 1921 and cult wines from California. The sale displays special strength in Bordeaux, including several cases of Chbteau Cheval-Blanc 1947 and Chbteau Mouton-Rothschild 1945.

Some observers are worried that the sale offers too many wines and that the current market isn't strong enough to absorb such quantities; they predict that prices might drop. Whether the market is driven by bulls or bears will become clear once the hammer falls.

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