Fooling the experts

  • Wednesday 20 June 2007

The recent scandal of the Thomas Jefferson fake bottles shows, yet again, that forgeries can – and have – fooled all but the most knowledgeable collectors and wine merchants, says Margaret Rand

The recent scandal of the Thomas Jefferson fake bottles shows, yet again, that forgeries can – and have – fooled all but the most knowledgeable collectors and wine merchants, says Margaret Rand

Visit the London offices of wine merchants Corney & Barrow and you will see a bottle of 1982 Château Pétrus. Nothing surprising about that: C&B is the UK agent for Pétrus. One might glance at it in passing and think no more about it.

But this bottle is a fake. The label, with its familiar ornate lettering, was printed by somebody who had nothing at all to do with Pétrus except the wish to make good money by deceiving somebody: a case of 1982 Pétrus currently sells for around £25,000-plus. How can you tell it’s a fake? MD Adam Brett-Smith points to the cross-hatching on the letters of Pétrus: it’s not crisp enough. The paper quality isn’t right, and the ink used for Pétrus is too pink, not red enough. The differences are minute. I would be fooled by that bottle every time.

Which just shows that were I to venture into the rare wines market I would need to have my wits about me. Forgery is booming. And every new millionaire in search of trophy wines is a potential new customer for the forgers.

Let’s first define exactly what ‘forgery’ means: I’m not talking about a tanker of Merlot from the Languedoc trundling across to the Médoc after a poor vintage. Yes, that’s forgery too, but the forgery I mean is of fine and rare wines which appear on the secondary market with no provenance and perhaps (though not necessarily) in remarkable quantities. Serena Sutcliffe MW of Sotheby’s has said that there was probably more Mouton 1945 drunk in 1995, the anniversary year, than was ever made. US restaurateurs joke that more Pétrus 1982 is served in Las Vegas than the château ever produced. Fine and rare wine consultant David Wainwright, of Vincapital, points out that ‘if you look at Christie’s catalogues from the late 1960s and early 1970s, old Pomerols pop up now and again, but not as much as appear now on the secondary market. You could probably buy twice the production of 1921 Pétrus if you had the time and money.’

Anything goes

So which wines are being forged? Part of the answer is anything in demand on the secondary market that sells for a lot of money. Old wines are obvious targets: the 1945 and 1947 vintages in Bordeaux; 1961 ditto; 1921 ditto. But more recent vintages also get faked: that Pétrus 1982 at C&B, for example, or the 30 bottles of fake Lafite 1982 caught by Hong Kong customs officers in 2002; or the 20,000 bottles of forged Sassicaia 1995 discovered in Tuscany in 2003. The rest of the answer is that mid-range wines can be forged as well – especially, it seems, for Far Eastern markets: cru bourgeois clarets, that sort of thing.

That leads on to the questions of how they do it, and how they get away with it. Let’s look at the second question first: they get away with it because it’s quite easy to get away with it, providing you don’t come up against a very knowledgeable and rigorous auction house, merchant or broker.

Before anybody is tempted to point the finger at those who have allowed fake wines through the net, let’s go back 20 or 30 years. The world was a different place then. If a merchant had a case of fine, old claret that had been stored, say, in damp conditions, and the labels had deteriorated, the château might well simply send him new labels. They knew and trusted each other; it was part of the service. Somewhere in my files I have a pristine 1989 Grange label: wineries used to send labels to wine writers to use as illustrations, and they didn’t always have ‘specimen’ printed across them. Neither of these things happens now.

Twenty years ago, when people were so much more relaxed – or gullible – forgery was not such a big problem. Yes, questions were asked when German collector Hardy Rodenstock said he had come across bottles with Thomas Jefferson’s monogram in a sealed cellar in Paris, and would give no further details; but the market accepted them, even if the muttering continued. More recently, the Jefferson estate has repudiated them (see box, below).

Wines without proper provenance should be looked at very closely. If they are said to come from ‘an old family cellar’ or ‘an old private collection’, demand to know which family, and which collection. If a name can’t be put to it, be suspicious. Zachy’s in New York, for example, increasingly asks for sound provenance going back 15 years for wines for its auctions.

Of course, once a wine has been through the hands of a reputatable dealer, it has acquired some provenance. More than one collector has amassed a valuable cellar over the years, buying from trusted sources, only to be told when he takes the whole lot to an auction house that the most prized bottles are fakes. If he has the resources, he can pursue the original sources through the courts; but it’s a long and expensive business.

Wising up

New markets are especially susceptible to fakes. It’s a huge problem in the US, and perhaps bigger still in the Far East. ‘Asia has wised up since the late 1990s,’ says David Wainwright. ‘Nevertheless, many collectors still appear unconcerned about the risk of buying a fake.

‘Very few collectors in the Far East today have seen genuine bottles of wines like Pétrus 1921,’ he continues, ‘and few are knowledgeable about what Pomerol produced in those years.’ (The answer is very little, and most has been drunk. Any offer of cases of magnums and jeroboams of such wines should be treated with caution.) Far fewer have tasted them enough to spot one that isn’t right. One source recalls being invited to taste a run of 1920s vintages of Pétrus. ‘I thought they were dubious because there would be variation in wines that age, and they were all homogenous. Also, I know the 1928 is very light in colour. This was very dark, as they all were.’

This is the other part of the problem: until quite recently producers were often gloriously cavalier about bottling and labelling. Bottles, capsules and corks all varied. And that’s before you take into account the amount of négociant bottling there was until château bottling became the rule. Some years ago C&B went to Pétrus and photographed and made notes on every bottle from 1961 to 1995 – and found huge variations in bottle shapes, capsules and corks. Such variation is a gift to the forger – especially in older vintages where records often don’t exist.

Adam Brett-Smith recalls his only direct experience of a fake: ‘We were invited to dinner at the Regent Hotel, Hong Kong, in the mid-1990s by a local customer, and on the wine list was Le Pin 1982 in magnum. I’d had 1982 Le Pin once before. When it was poured I stuck my nose in it, expecting the earth to move, and got very little; it was a bit earthy and dour; a deep colour, but no pyrotechnics. I looked at my colleague and imperceptibly shook my head. I leaned across to my host and said, ‘There’s something wrong with my glass; can I try yours?’ He said, ‘What vintage do you think it could be? 1984?’ 1984 was a disaster in Pomerol. He knew it was a fake all along; he just kept it to test UK merchants.’

US collector Wilfred Jaeger remembers opening a bottle of 1962 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Richebourg with a group of veteran tasters. We all quickly concluded it was not right. The bottle appeared authentic and the vintage on the cork matched the one on the label. But upon closer inspection, it was clear the date on the cork had been modified. I assume that the practitioners used an original bottle, and a ‘bladed corkscrew’, to remove a younger Domaine cork, then with the help of a nail file and a stamp, presto, the wine was worth £2,000.’

Getting a cork out without damaging it is merely a knack, and capsules can be replaced. Jaeger continues: ‘Next time you visit a wine region, drop into a wine hardware store. There, for about $300, you can buy a capsuling machine. These work remarkably well.’

And of course there is a perfectly legitimate trade in old bottles, whether 18th-century or Mouton artists’-label ones.

The final question is, what is the trade doing about forgeries? And it’s a ticklish subject. Nobody wants to deter collectors from buying. The Bordelais on the one hand would have one believe that it’s not a big problem, while on the other investing in laser-etched bottles that offer complete traceability. Says Paul Pontallier of Margaux: ‘All our bottles are unique to Margaux. Each bottle has a laser-etched number in the glass at bottling; each number is different. And there are ways to recognise the labels; we have tried to organise a system which can last 40 years or more.’ This type of system is now standard for the top wines, but it has only been so for about 10 years.

Traders on the secondary market are alert to the possibility of forgery these days: reputable dealers have too much at stake to be less than rigorous. Many dealers have lost whole cellars because they’ve raised doubts about a few wines in it. The final resort for anyone uncertain about a wine is to refer it to the producer. The stakes are high: if the wine is wrong, it will be destroyed. All the first growths I asked said that they get a few requests a year; not many. I asked some if Hardy Rodenstock had ever sent bottles for authentication: the answer was always ‘No. Never.’ But then he presumably has no doubts.

Some collectors just don’t want to know. Aubert de Villaine of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti recalls meeting a collector who was immensely proud of his DRC Richebourg 1947. Villaine explained that there was no such wine, as the vineyard had just been replanted and wasn’t producing wine in 1947. The wine turned out to be Echézeaux 1964, but for the collector, it remained Richebourg 1947. He was delighted with it, and would hear nothing against it.

For more on the issue of provenance and the security measures being taken by producers to guard against forgeries, see next month’s issue.

Facts and possible facts

n Fakes could account for as much as 5% of wine sold on the secondary market.

n According to the World Customs Bureau, $600 billion’s worth of counterfeit goods, including watches, luggage and clothes, are sold every year.

n Out of all the individual wines produced in the world, perhaps 30–50 are the prime target of forgers.

n Any collectable wine may be forged, but red Bordeaux seems to be the main target. 1811 Cognacs appear and reappear, too.

n Fraudulent wines are always sound; the genuine article, if it is very old, can be hugely variable, bottle to bottle.

n Each bottle of Roederer Champagne now has its own code number, and consumers can trace their bottles online.

n Australian wines liable to be forged include Penfolds

Grange and St Henri.

Rodenstock v Koch: The battle over the Jefferson bottles, by Howard G Goldberg

The wine establishment feels queasy about a lawsuit in federal district court in New York City that alleges fraud. Its members have long conducted business with the defendant, Hardy Rodenstock (above), a German collector and dealer, and enjoyed his regal tastings of rare wines.

The plaintiff, William I Koch (right), a billionaire Florida collector, paid $500,000 in 1988 for four Bordeaux bottles Rodenstock attributed to Thomas Jefferson, America’s second president. They were found, Rodenstock has maintained since 1985, in a walled-up cellar in Paris, where Jefferson served as minister to France.

In 1787, Jefferson toured famed Bordeaux estates; his journal cites ‘Margau’, ‘la Fite’, ‘Mouton’ and ‘Diquem’. After 1789, Jefferson, whose palate was arguably the most sophisticated in post-colonial America, served imported claret in Philadelphia, at the White House and, near Washington, at Monticello, his artistically preserved estate in what today is Charlottesville, Virginia.

In 1985, Rodenstock said his Jefferson cache held more than a dozen bottles, including three 1784 and 1787 bottles from Château d’Yquem, three 1787 Château Lafite, three Château Margaux from 1787 and three 1787 Château Branne-Moutons, Mouton-Rothschild’s predecessor.

Their provenance has been suspect since this writer, reporting sceptically in The New York Times, disclosed their existence in 1985 and since a Christie’s auction in London that year fetched a record $156,450 from the late publisher Malcolm Forbes for a purported 1787 Lafite.

In his lawsuit filed last August, Koch asserts: ‘Having built a reputation as a wine connoisseur, Rodenstock periodically claims to have discovered rare vintages of wine. At least some of these discoveries are forgeries.’ The case was the outcome of Koch’s million-dollar outlay for detective work involving former FBI and British intelligence agents.

Scientific tests of the supposed 1787 Lafite determined only that it had been made before 1945. Relying on glass experts, Koch says the initials ‘Th. J.’ on the bottles were engraved using ‘an electric power tool or tools with a flexible shaft’ that did not exist in the 1700’s. His engraving specialists also called the Forbes bottle fraudulent.

A barrage of attention began in September 2006 with a front-page Wall Street Journal article detailing Koch’s tangle with Rodenstock. It intensified after it was revealed in March that Justice Department prosecutors had begun a criminal inquiry into sales of counterfeit wines, sending subpoenas to auction houses; that a Manhattan grand jury had taken testimony; and that the FBI’s art-fraud squad had conducted interviews.

The investigators reportedly were asking whether auction houses, collectors and importers deliberately sold counterfeit wines while harbouring doubts about their authenticity. Sales with intent to defraud conducted by mail or wire could be prosecuted under federal fraud laws. As we went to press, neither the Justice Department nor the FBI would comment on their operations, but the enquiry has served to fan the flames surrounding the issue, which have been further fuelled by a voracious press pack.

In mid-March, the German news magazine Stern carried an exposé titled ‘Uncorked! The Great Wine Fraud,’ devoting thousands of words to Rodenstock and raising questions about the honesty of his wine dealings. The Times of London, Financial Times and other national newspapers jumped aboard, too.

In the process, Michael Broadbent, who as a Christie’s executive first vouched for the authenticity of the Jefferson bottles and has openly admired Rodenstock, found himself a lightning rod for longtime sceptics with 20/20 hindsight.

In January, lawyers representing Rodenstock, declaring he had ‘a sterling reputation in the industry’, petitioned the Manhattan court to dismiss the case, arguing it lacked jurisdiction and that the statute of limitations had run out. Koch’s lawyers filed a counter-motion. Subsequently, ‘We received permission from the court to subpoena discovery documents,’ Brad Goldstein, Koch’s spokesman, said in mid-April. ‘We have sent subpoenas out to many business associates’ of Rodenstock.

Rodenstock’s lawyers in New York will not comment on the case, and he has stopped replying to faxes sent to his number in Germany. He has steadfastly maintained that his version of the wines’ provenance is true, though details seem to have differed in his recall. He claims now not to be able to recall the name of the original vendor of the Jefferson bottles.

It is not the first time Rodenstock had been sued for alleged counterfeiting. A German collector, Hans-Peter Frericks, accused Rodenstock in a Munich state court, which found in favour of Frericks in 1992, saying ‘the defendant adulterated the wine or knowingly offered adulterated wine’. Rodenstock appealed, and the pair filed criminal complaints against each other for defamation. The cases were eventually settled out of court.

Significantly, however, the German court files, which were obtained by Koch, reveal correspondence between Sotheby’s and Frericks in which the auction house cast doubt upon the Jefferson bottles, given concern about authenticity.

‘Mr Jefferson,’ as Virginians still respectfully call him, was an intellectual of systematic, thorough habits. The archive of his lifetime’s writings seems bottomless. As a result, curatorial staff at his Monticello estate have posed fundamental questions about the bottles. Its stands behind a December 1985 research report by staffer Lucia Stanton that expressed doubts.

‘Jefferson’s surviving records for the period are virtually intact,’ Stanton said, declaring, ‘I have found no mention by Jefferson of ever desiring to have a Bordeaux wine of the 1787 vintage.’ She could not share a ‘leap of faith’ that the bottles belonged to Jefferson simply ‘because they bear his initials’.

The tsunami of professional-integrity issues unleashed, heightened and accelerated by the Koch lawsuit have seeped into the world’s classiest and most ostentatiously accumulated private cellars, unsettling auction houses, merchants of fine and rare wines and

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