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Auction news

Sign language In Asia, it’s often not the wine that matters, it’s the meaning – and money – behind it

‘Lafite and Mouton 2008 enjoyed the most spectacular rises as buyers rushed to secure both wines after confirmation of rumours they were to feature Chinese artwork and symbols on the new labels,’ said UK merchant Bordeaux Index.
Before Christmas, Lafite 2008 put on £4,000 a case at the news it was to be bottled with a lucky Chinese symbol. Mouton 2008 added an extra £2,660 a case soon after the label designed by Chinese artist Xu Lei was unveiled.
We also know that a case of 2009 Lafite en primeur sold for £43,000 (three times the market price) when two Chinese businessmen tried to outdo each other at Sotheby’s Hong Kong auction. ‘We’re already beginning to see the impact of the Chinese Lunar New Year – the Year of The Rabbit,’ added Bordeaux Index, ‘an incredibly important time on
the social and corporate calendar.’

It’s clear provenance makes a big difference to a trophy collector and there’s no better provenance than Sotheby’s ‘treasures’ direct from the cellar of ‘legendary’ Lafite. Is it so surprising amid this feeding frenzy that the French consul general to Hong Kong was accused of stealingtwo bottles of Burgundy worth £4,200?

Decanter.com ran a story on how other Bordeaux châteaux can ‘inherit the Lafite halo’ with ships and dragons. Symbols, artwork,trophies, treasures, social calendars? Where the West has seen prices rise on the simple formula of supply and demand (and Parker scores), the intrinsic worth of the liquid is not the only factor in Asia. If anything goes in the bid to capture the Asian imagination (and cash), you could be forgiven for closely examining the Emperor’s new clothes.

After the landmark sale netted its vendors a fortune, Lafite’s Baron Eric de Rothschild said he was ‘delighted
to bring Lafite to so many connoisseurs and wine lovers’. But who are these people, buying Lafite
direct from the Baron’s cellar? Sotheby’s said the landmark sale reached out ‘to experienced collectors competing for the ultimate trophy wines and younger collectors aggressively building up their cellars’.

In the new unknown of the Asian market, Doug Rumsam of Bordeaux Index waded in with the interesting observation that ‘wine investment traditionally was centred upon the finest wines from the best vintages – but now we’re seeing a different trend. Mainland buyers want to indulge their clients with gifts from the cellars of the finest brands while also getting value for money. As a result we’ve seen a dramatic rise in the price of the 2001, 2002, 2004 and 2007 vintages.’

Agreeing that the Chinese market ‘continues to be driven by unconventional factors’, Stephen Williams, founder of the Antique Wine Company, counsels any ‘valueminded’person to sell any Lafite they have in their cellar (preferably to him). Ex-Morgan Stanley and now independent financial analyst Andy Xie agrees that anyone with any Lafite in their cellar should sell, but for different reasons.

Xie compares the market to the internet bubble of a decade ago. ‘Even wine lovers have become hoarders. They used to meet for a glass of fine wine. Now they talk about how much money they’re making on their collections over a glass of bad wine.’ He’s convinced that in the rush for Lafite, it’s being hoarded and counterfeited, and in the long run its bubble will burst when China re-adjusts to higher interest rates and the money dries up. ‘Lafite is today’s darling. Who knows what’s down the road?’

Written by Anthony Rose

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