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Wine Sales Not Currently Affected by Christie's Fee Restructuring

Peter D. Meltzer
Posted: February 9, 2000

Wine collectors are not facing an immediate hike in auction premiums in the aftermath of Christie's recent rate restructuring.

"The new commissions and buyer's premiums will not apply to Christie's wine sales for the time being. Christie's will make an announcement about wine in the near future," said Andrie Corroon, director of public affairs for Christie's.

Corroon's statement to Wine Spectator came after Christie's announced major changes to the fees it levies on buyers and sellers at auction -- changes that were made against the backdrop of a Justice Department investigation and several class-action lawsuits claiming that the auction house had fixed rates with one of its competitors.

As of March 31, Christie's will raise its standard buyer's premium from 15 percent to 17.5 percent on the first $80,000 of a final bid price and 10 percent on the amount of the bid above $80,000. Consignor's fees, which had been determined on a fixed scale from 2 percent to 20 percent, will be lowered on a sliding-scale basis and will now be based on a client's combined purchases and sales.

High-end clients whose purchases and/or sales add up to $5 million or more in any calendar year will receive special terms to be negotiated individually.

Christie's has yet to determine how the announcement will affect commission rates for specialty departments, such as stamps and coins as well as its international wine department. Until now, the wine department had imposed two different buyer's premiums: 15 percent on sales in the United States and 10 percent on sales in the United Kingdom.

Edward Dolman, CEO of Christie's, said that the firm had been considering a change in its commission and premium structure for some time. "Its announcement has simply been accelerated by recent events," he said.

The "recent events" referred to by Dolman include an antitrust investigation launched by the Justice Department in 1997 to examine the possibility that Christie's and its arch-rival, Sotheby's, fixed commissions in the international art market. Separately, eight class-action lawsuits have been filed against the auction houses alleging that the firms conspired to limit competition on commission rates as early as 1992. Collusion to fix commission rates would constitute unlawful restraint of trade under the Sherman Antitrust Act.

In the 1980s, it was commonly believed within the art world that potential consignors with art collections valued at the level of seven or eight figures were wooed by the prospect of zero commission fees. This alleged practice was precluded in the 1990s, when both auction houses set fixed rates. As very few wine consignments over the past decade have exceeded $1 million, it is unlikely that any wine seller was significantly affected by any alleged collusion on rates.

Late last month, Christie's revealed it had "only recently become aware" that possible conduct by prior management might be relevant to the ongoing government probe. In exchange for its cooperation, Christie's has reportedly received amnesty from the Justice Department.

The new rates will make it cheaper to sell and more expensive to buy at Christie's, although high-end clients will clearly benefit from special treatment. The antitrust aspect of the investigation should preclude Sotheby's from copying Christie's new rate structure, but in order to remain competitive, the auction house may follow suit in some manner. Both firms have declined to comment on any aspect of the government investigation.

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