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FBI investigates auction houses for wine fraud

The US government is probing sales of counterfeit wine and has sent subpoenas to Zachys in New York and Christie’s in London and collectors of rare wine.

The investigation was disclosed today by The Wall Street Journal, which said a federal grand jury in New York was hearing evidence and that the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s art-fraud unit was holding interviews.

Without citing its source, The Journal said ‘the criminal investigation is focusing . . . on whether auction houses, collectors or importers knowingly sold counterfeit wines despite doubts about their authenticity.’

The government could prosecute such sales under federal fraud laws.

Counterfeiting, the newspaper said, ‘is beginning to threaten confidence in the market for rare wines – except those sold directly from wineries.’

Jeff Zacharia, Zachys’ president, was quoted as saying that counterfeiting technology has become increasingly sophisticated, ‘forcing the industry to be more alert for fraud.’

‘Both Christie’s and Zachys declined to comment on the subpoenas the firms received,’ The Journal said.

  • UPDATE 7 March

    Since this story was published, Andrew M Crisses, Zachys’ lawyer, in reply to the Wall Street Journal report that Zachys and Christie’s have been subpoenaed, told decanter.com a federal attorney had sent Zachys a letter asking about any commercial dealings with Rodenstock. Zachys, he said, told the lawyer that it had not had any dealings. ‘As far as Zachys is concerned, the investigation is over,’ Crisses said.

    Christie’s has sent the following statement to decanter.com: ‘Christie’s will not sell any lot that we know or have reason to believe is inauthentic or counterfeit. This applies to all property that we offer for sale around the world, from fine art to motor cars, from furniture to wine. We take all appropriate steps to establish authenticity, and work with the leading experts, authorities and institutions in the relevant field to research the property that we sell. With respect to recent news reports regarding an investigation into wine industry sales, we have been cooperating with officials and will continue to do so. We will not be making any detailed comment while the matter is subject to legal proceedings.’

    Written by Howard G Goldberg in New York

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