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March auction news: strategy and scepticism

Meet my imaginary friend Joe Sixpack. In 2007 he moved up from booze to wine. He plunged into buying at auction. Now he wants to sell there. But Sixpack knows, unhappily, from other investments, that past performance is no guarantee of future results

Worse, auction prices’ plunge in 2009, despite third- and fourth-quarter improvements, offer him no clues as to a selling strategy for 2010.

Maybe auction houses’ results in the 2009 bear market might tilt him toward a few to work with? So should his key criterion be revenue leaders, in a year that generated $250.83m worldwide, down from at least $276m in 2008?

If so, Zachys topped the tree, having grossed $50.77m in 2009. NewYorkWines/Christie’s took $50.44m. Acker Merrall & Condit, $44.21m; Alden Cellars/Sotheby’s, $41.76m; Hart Davis Hart, $24.01m; Bonhams and Butterfields, $8.69m; Morrell, $1.87m; Edward Roberts International, $1.48m; Skinner (Boston), $773,400; and (online) WineBid.com took $22m.

Two newcomers came aboard: London-based Bloomsbury, partnering with Sokolin (a Long Island, New York merchant), held a $1.36m Manhattan auction. Spectrum, in Irvine, California, had a $3.46m debut (held simultaneously in Hong Kong), with a 100% sell-through rate.

Suppose Sixpack assumes that auction houses that confine their business exclusively to wine embody the greatest depth and breadth of experience. From among the top earners, he could choose Zachys, Acker and Hart.

If he believes that all facets of auction experience are aggregated and transmitted in company cultures, Christie’s and Sotheby’s would be obvious choices. In 2009 Christie’s held four wine auctions in Amsterdam, two in Geneva, two in Paris and one in Burgundy.

If Sixpack wanted to unload trophy wines to make a bundle, he might opt for houses that, increasing their sales, have turned Hong Kong into an entrepôt that services China’s insatiable demand.

Acker held four auctions there, with an overall US$20.73m gross; Zachys’ four took US$18.80m; Sotheby’s held three (US$14.29m); Christie’s, two (US$8.76m); Bonhams, one (US$1.43m). This year China might surpass the US as the globe’s biggest rare- and fine-wine market.

Chicago’s Hart Davis Hart has established its bona fides since its 2004 birth. Last year it sold 100% of consignments in seven consecutive auctions, and there were only 11 lots passed in 2009. In addition, Hart’s internet materials devoted to retail operations convey an aura of reliability and sophistication. Should Hart be Sixpack’s outlet?

As a wine newcomer, he has enjoyed Morrell’s retail store and wine bar. But he’s baffled. Morrell’s once lively auction arm brought in only $1.87m: just one brick-and-mortar sale, grossing $634,400, the rest from four internet auctions.

Sixpack’s a tightwad. Given the unpredictability of hammer prices, he can’t figure out which house, if any, offers the best buying bargains. He’s leery of auction executives’ upbeat post-sale press-release ‘assessments’; too often the media swallow them uncritically.

His scepticism is well grounded. Collectors, haunted by the highly publicised spectre of counterfeit wines and a rash of lawsuits, wonder if, despite reassurances, all auction houses truly practice due diligence in tracing provenance.

They remember that John Kapon, Acker’s president and auction director, in 2008 had to withdraw 22 lots of fake Domaine Ponsot Burgundy collectively estimated at $400,000 to $600,000. Not good.

2009 Hammer Highlights

Although the volume of wines offered and the numbers of auctions held in 2009 lagged behind 2008, there was no shortage of top dollars spent.

Acker Merrall & Condit: in Hong Kong, 12 cases of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti 1990–2001 Burgundy (e:$250,000–$300,000) found $327,867.

Zachys: a 1945 Mouton Rothschild case from Mähler-Besse cellars in Bordeaux ($120,000–$200,000) brought $218,581.

Alden Cellars/Sotheby’s: a vertical of 23 magnums of Vega-Sicilia Unico, from 1960 through 1995, all but the 1968 bottling carrying the number 1 ($11,000–$20,000), fetched $102,850.

NYWines/Christie’s: a 1945 La Mission Haut-Brion case ($30,000–$50,000) went for $72,000.

Hart Davis Hart, Chicago: six magnums of 1982 Pétrus ($24,000–$35,000) found $65,725.

Edward Roberts International, Chicago: a 1982 Lafite-Rothschild case ($20,400–$27,600) attracted $35,891.

Written by Howard G Goldberg

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