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Koch vs Greenberg: trial begins in Manhattan

The long-awaited court case between billionaire collector William Koch and California collector Eric Greenberg has finally started a day late.

The opening day yesterday, Tuesday, in Manhattan Federal Court, consisted of jury selection and preliminary legal arguments before Judge Paul Oetken.

Jurors were rigorously vetted by both teams of lawyers. One juror, Decanter.com understands, was dismissed because she said she was a librarian who had read books on wine, particularly a book about corks.

Koch (pictured) and Greenberg sat on opposite sides of the court with their dozen-strong legal teams.

Legal arguments as to the admissibility of certain pieces of evidence took up much of the day.

Eric Greenberg’s legal team argued that a cheque for US$272,555 that Greenberg had sent Koch, after Koch had bought Greenberg bottles for US$228,603 at a 2005 auction that he concluded were either ‘counterfeit’ or ‘possibly counterfeit’, was demonstration of his good faith and should not be admitted.

Koch’s team argued that this evidence should be put before the court as Greenberg offered the refund only after Koch threatened to sue.

This trial was finally given the green light in October 2008 when a New York federal judge decided Koch was entitled to seek punitive damages from Greenberg.

In 2007 Koch brought the lawsuit accusing Greenberg of knowingly selling him dubious bottles when auctioneer Zachys sold 17,000 bottles from Greenberg’s collection. Koch claims that 24 of the US$3.7m of rare bottles he bought at that sale are dubious or fake.

Koch claims that Sotheby’s declined to auction the wines after examining the Greenberg cellar, and that Greenberg knowingly consigned dubious bottles to Zachys.

After Koch bought the Greenberg bottles – which included ultra-rareties such as 1864 Château Latour, 1921 Pétrus and 1921 Cheval-Blanc – he concluded that seven were ‘counterfeit’ and four ‘possibly counterfeit.’

Greenberg later sent Koch a US$272,555 cheque to cover the purchase, 9% interest and US$1,000 in court costs.

As Decanter.com reported in 2008, that cheque wasn’t cashed, and the wine wasn’t returned. Asked why, Brad Goldstein, Koch’s spokesman replied, ‘In what country does the defendant get to decide the verdict, the penalty and the damages?’

At the time a lawyer for Greenberg, Anthony Coles, told Decanter.com: ‘The allegations in the lawsuit are false, and Mr Greenberg expects to prevail in court. It’s hard to imagine a lawsuit as wasteful as this one.’

Koch is or has been involved in a number of different lawsuits against individuals – such as wine collector Hardy Rodenstock – and auction houses and wine merchants such as Christie’s, Zachys and the Chicago Wine Company. Some have been settled out of court while others were disallowed.

Many of the cases involve the now-notorious ‘Jefferson Bottles’ – bottles of Lafite and other fine Bordeaux supposedly belonging to Thomas Jefferson and inscribed ‘Th.J’.

The opening statements in the court case will be made today, Wednesday 27 March.

Written by Adam Lechmere

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