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Single-owner sales: Wine auction wisdom

The overheated auction market for collectible wine in recent years has helped bring many significant collections to market.

Collectors contemplating the dizzying spiral of prices often decide that the time is ripe for profit-taking. Some may decide that they will never drink their way through their cellar, while others feel they could not in good conscience enjoy wines that, in many cases, have appreciated tenfold since their purchase. Many, or most, collectors begin with wine enjoyment rather than investment as their primary goal. Still, as prices continue to climb, it becomes harder and harder to ignore insistent pleas to consign their wines to auction.

Although the wine market has cooled somewhat in the first quarter of 2023, sales remain brisk. New York-based wine auction specialist Zachys notes that the top lot in its upcoming Hong Kong auction is a 12-bottle case of 1988 Romanée-Conti.

The auction does not take place until 1 April, yet absentee bids are already up to HK$2,600,000 (£269,620 – more than £335,000 with buyer’s premium), setting a world record for this highly-traded wine well before the auction has taken place.

Part of the secret to this success is the provenance of the wine, which comes from a single-owner cellar rather than an assortment of various vendors. Provenance is one of the critical drivers of the price at auction, along with quality, condition, and rarity. Sales that maximise all of these factors can be wildly successful.

Billed as ‘The All Star Collection’, attendance at the Zachys sale is already at capacity. Nor is Zachys alone – the next day, Sotheby’s will offer (also in Hong Kong) ‘The Ethereal Cellar’, a single-owner sale that features more than 3,600 bottles in 583 lots with a combined estimate of HK$28,000,000 (£2,900,000). As George Lacey, Sotheby’s head of wine for Asia, explained: ‘[Single owner sales] ignite the most excitement and demand throughout the global wine community.’

Among its many treasures, the sale offers a six-bottle case of 2005 La Tâche grand cru, estimated at HK$300,000 – 400,000 (roughly £31,000 – 41,000).

Single-owner sales have long been a staple of the auction trade. Christie’s has specialised for many years in bringing famous cellars to auction. Michael Broadbent MW sold the legendary collection from Glamis Castle to auction in 1971 with its multiple magnums of 1870 Lafite. More than 25 years later, he set a record of more than £9,000,000 for the sale of wines from the collection of Norwegian collector Christen Sveaas, who sold with them again in 2007, and again last week where he earned over HK$30m –  approximately 50% above the high presale estimate.

Beginning next week, Christie’s will offer the cellar of Irwin Kotovsky in its sale ‘The Two Continents Collection’ that will be sold in online sales in the US (6-18 April) and in the UK (8-22 June), beginning with lot #1, a bottle of the exquisite 1959 Champagne Salon Le Mesnil, estimated at US$3,000-$5,000. As long as rarities like this lurk in private cellars, interest in single-owner sales should continue to grow.

Auction details

The Ethereal Cellar
Sothebys Hong Kong
2 April 12:00
Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre

The All Star Collection
Zachys Wine Auctions
1 April 11:00
Island Shangri-La Hotel

The Two Continents Collection
Christie’s, New York & London
Part 1: 6-18 April
(Los Angeles, conducted online)
Part 2: 8-22 June
(London, conducted online)

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