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December auction news: Sotheby’s – from 1970 to 2010

Anthony Rose looks back to the days of reasonable Bordeaux prices at auction

Bubbles fuelled the euphoria as an entire afternoon of Sotheby’s Wine department’s 40th anniversary sale in September was devoted to Champagne. A ‘staggering’ total of £2,412,194, way above the pre-sale estimate of £1.65-£2.06 million, made this the second highest total of the decade for a Sotheby’s London wine sale. Putting 40 years of wine auctions into context, Serena Sutcliffe MW and Stephen Mould recalled in the catalogue that turnover for the first season was £148,288, with £130 paid for a case of 1928 Veuve Clicquot and £38 for a bottle of the legendary 1921 d’Yquem.

Discussing the innovations of the digital age, the illustrated colour catalogues and the live online bidding introduced last year, they reassured us that ‘wine remains a constant in this changing world’. The extent to which wine has changed over the past 40 years is an issue beyond the scope of this column. Suffice to say that the US wine writer Matt Kramer recalled in a simultaneous article ‘how thoroughly wine has changed since, say, 1970’, citing the increase in power and tannins of red wines in the 1980s, and the subsequent effect on fine wines of the ‘powerful thrust of technology’.

Changes in style apart, what would have amazed investors in 1970 peering into their crystal ball to today’s auction results would be the ‘staggering’ prices achieved at auction today. Christie’s used to publish a handy price guide called simply Christie’s Fine Wine Index. The 1984 edition shows, in 1975, prices for the first growths reaching £52 a case for Lafite 1970 and £66 for a dozen bottles of Latour. Compare that to their respective prices today of £2,700 and £1,870 a case.

By the time the 1989 edition was published – the last, alas, in an informative series introduced by Michael Broadbent MW – the 1982 vintage of Bordeaux was on sale in the auction room. In its first outing at auction, 1985, the ‘82 Lafite was fetching £520–£700, Latour £540, Margaux £560–£660 and Mouton-Rothschild £600. There was a time a few years ago when the pundits seemed to believe that the 1982 vintage had reached its price peak. Far from it. At Sotheby’s 40th anniversary sale, a case of 1982 Lafite fetched £34,500, with Mouton coming in at £13,800 – still not a bad return.

One of the most ‘staggering’ (that word again) prices achieved in the latest round of auctions was for top 1959 red Bordeaux. At Christies’ autumn season opening sale in London on 9 September, six magnums of 1959 Latour made £40,250, while 12 bottles of Lafite went for £34,500. In the year after Sotheby’s wine department opened, you could have snapped up the 1959 Latour for £84–£145 a case, and Lafite for £85–£150.

Despite intervening recessions, the fine wine saleroom appears to be immune to the maxim that what goes up must come down. And with reason. One aspect of wine remaining ‘a constant in this changing world’ is the limited quantity of wine capable of selling the dream. Who, back in 1970 would have predicted that Hong Kong in 2010 would be neck and neck with London and New York as one of the great fine wine hubs of the world? Or that there would be seven major wine funds holding assets worth £80 million? Unless and until the supply side grows at a similar rate to demand, the evidence suggests that prices for the very best will keep rising.

Written by Anthony Rose

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