Historic Madeira bottling fetches nearly $16,000 at auction

A cache of centuries-old Madeira discovered in New Jersey during renovation work has been auctioned by Christie’s, with one bottling from the late 1700s selling for nearly $16,000, while the same auction was also declared a 'watershed' moment for rare American whiskies.

A ‘quart’ bottle of The Lenox Madeira, imported to Philadelphia in 1796 by Robert Lenox and originally bottled in 1798 before being re-bottled in 1888, sold for $15,925 at the Christie’s auction in New York.

Two more bottles of the same fortified wine fetched $14,700, meaning all three lots sold for close to double Christie’s’ pre-sale high estimates of $8,000. Christie’s results for the 7 December auction also show that several other bottles of the Lenox Madeira beat pre-sale estimates.

All were from a large collection of Madeira wines discovered behind a wall during renovation work at Liberty Hall Museum, a registered national landmark and part of Kean University in New Jersey.

Another larger bottling, a five-gallon ‘demijohn’ of Old Sercial Madeira, 1846, fetched $39,200 at the 7 December auction.

The wine had a nose of ‘fudge, violets, straw, vanilla and vintage furniture wax’, according to pre-auction tasting notes by Edwin Vos, head of wine sales for Continental Europe at Christie’s.

John Kean Sr, president of Liberty Hall, attended the auction and told Decanter.com that the museum was very pleased with the results, ‘although as expected, a number of items did not meet the required minimums’.

He added, ‘At this time, we have not as yet been advised as to the amount netted from the sale and, of course, will be deciding on how to handle the items that did not sell. When the final numbers are received we will determine the projects at the museum that are most urgent in need of support.’

Chris Munro, head of wine at Christie’s for the Americas, highlighted strong global demand for both the rare Madeiras and also a collection of pre-Prohibition American whiskies, which were offered in the same auction.

Munro said this represented a ‘watershed moment’ for rare American whiskey after many lots ‘smashed through’ pre-sale estimates.

A single lot containing nine quarts of JH Beam Old Style Brookhill Sour Mash 1912, fetched $26,950 versus a high estimate of $5,000.

More about the Madeira discovered at Liberty Hall

‘Christie’s specialists were astonished by the rarity of the bottles and demijohns present in the cellar,’ said Edwin Vos, in auction notes.

He said the inspection team arrived in September 2017 to find ‘Madeira bottles with handwritten labels from 1820 and the great 1808 vintage in one corner, but also a number of large hand-blown glass bottles of Robert Lenox from 1796’.

America was a key destination for Madeira wines in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

Bill Schroh Jr, Liberty Hall Museum’s director of operations, told Decanter.com that the team was ‘blown away’ by the find. ‘We know of other people who found single bottles of Madeira from this era, but not three cases.’ he said.

The wine cellar at Liberty Hall had barely been touched since the 1940s.


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