Auction news: Slice of history
- Thursday 26 July 2012
Mel Brooks’ famously imaginary 2,000-year-old man, who in many comic sketches has been a living witness to Western history, was in town to buy antique vintages at Sotheby’s and Zachys in April. I interviewed him in Fraunces Tavern, perhaps New York’s oldest pub, founded in 1762. He first visited Fraunces in 1783 – days after the last defeated British soldiers left American soil – when George Washington delivered his Farewell Address to officers of the Continental Army there.
Here’s the transcript:
Q: Washington and his pals all drank wine. What was it? What did it cost?
A: From Sotheby’s in London. Samuel Baker, the founder, invited me to his first auction, in 1744. We had lunch with Alexander Pope. Pope, poor fellow, died some months later. Never was much of a poet. The wine was claret. Even then les rosbifs thought of nothing else: claret for breakfast, elevenses, lunch, dinner. The first lot went for two ha’pennies; the second, with nicked labels, for a farthing. Both were overpriced. I was also Berry Bros & Rudd’s first customer when the London merchant opened in 1698. It bottled the claret Sotheby’s sold. I warned them not to use Portuguese corks; they wouldn’t listen. Today I say to its sales director and Bordeaux buyer Simon Staples, ‘I told you so.’
Q: Ever taste any of the auctioned Thomas Jefferson wines?
A: Yes. I once dined at Hardy Rodenstock’s.
Q: I understand that in the old days the English, too, had négociants?
A: I knew one, called Robin Hood. He stole from the rich and gave to the poor – unlike Bordeaux négociants, who steal from the rich and give to the rich.
Q: What’s the oldest auction-worthy wine you’ve drunk? Did you rate it?
A: It was Chinese. 2,000 years old. Made from rice. Found in Henan province in 2011 in a rusty, airtight copper pot in a Western Han dynasty tomb. I gave it 93 points. After it was open for five minutes I retasted it and gave it 13. Can’t trust first impressions. I also bought a half-bottle of the same vintage in Hong Kong. Charles Curtis MW, Christie’s chap there, thought it was counterfeit. I can’t imagine why.
Q: You lived in England when Vikings landed, threw feasts and guzzled wine from cow horns?
A: Yes. Many of their descendants have gone into biodynamics.
Q: You like Champagne and bought a big consignment of old Dom Pérignon at Bonhams, didn’t you?
A: I don’t take at face value the story that a Benedictine monk improved the secondary fermentation. That was done by Izzy Horowitz, who commuted from the Marais, in Paris. Moët & Chandon didn’t think his name would fly in foreign markets.
Q: In your 2,000 years you’ve drunk oceans of wine and bought and sold tons of it at auction. Surely you know what minerality is?
A: I don’t. Nobody does. Even God.
Q: Did you ever ask Steven Spurrier, Jancis Robinson or Hugh Johnson?
A: Who are they?
Q: Contemporary wine writers!
A: The last critics I read were George Saintsbury, André Simon and an American named Parker. Fiddles with numbers. Brilliant but unsound.
Q: Who was your favourite auction going companion?
A: John Falstaff. He once told me: ‘If I had a thousand sons, the first humane principle I would teach them should be to forswear thin potations and to addict themselves to sack.’
Q: Did you know any royals?
A: Victoria and Albert. Now and then I took them to Simpson’s-in the-Strand for a tipple of Hock.
Howard G Goldberg is Decanter’s US East Coast correspondent.