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Warning signs for the wine auction market

September wine auction sales indicate continued strength in the market for collectible wine, as most international houses report good results. But are there storm clouds on the horizon for wine collectors?

Traditionally the wine auction market took the summer off. Although the season has lengthened recently, summer is usually a fallow period. This year, speculation was rampant – will the market (and the prices) continue their upward spiral? The first fall sales have now been conducted, and if prospects for the wine market remain strong, a few clouds linger on the horizon.

Wine auction results in 2021 broke all previous records and set a new benchmark. With sales in major auctions of over £500m, the category saw prices rise ever higher, particularly for keenly-fought categories such as Burgundy and Champagne. Sales and prices continued to grow through the first half of 2022, but by the last few sales in May, it seemed the market had begun to slow, with several notable sales showing lagging sell-through rates and softer prices for top wines. Caveat venditor?

Jamie Ritchie, Worldwide Chairman of Sotheby’s Wine, feels this is not the case: ‘Our September auctions of both wines and spirits in the US and UK have been exceptionally strong, underpinned by increased demand from the Americas, robust demand from the UK and Europe, with a slight softening from Asia.’

Demand from Asia has been an essential factor in the fine wine market since it surged in 2008 following the removal of import duties in Hong Kong. Many have feared that the continued impact of Coronavirus and the political instability across the region would negatively affect the wine market.

Despite warnings of a ‘slight softening from Asia’ on the part of Sotheby’s, other competitors are more bullish. John Kapon of market-leading Acker in New York relates that ‘Demand from Asia has been quite stable,’ while Tim Triptree of Christie’s in London notes that ‘Christie’s Hong Kong leads the way with sales of 42.7 million USD [in the first half of the year].’

Despite the optimism, there may still be cause for concern. In mid-September Zachys in New York held a high-profile live auction at the former Four Seasons restaurant called ‘The Unicorn Sale’ from a collection of a single anonymous collector. Most of the wines sold within the estimate, yet there were ‘unicorn’ bottles that did not find bidders, including methuselah (6 litre) bottles of La Tâche 1990 and 1993 and Romanée-Conti 1990. More recent vintages of these wines in large format still sold well, with solid prices reported for methuselahs of 2002 La Tâche and 2006 Romanée-Conti.

The sale at The Pool restaurant in Manhattan (formerly The Four Seasons) hummed with activity. Wine auctions in New York have long been buoyed by lavish lunches and luxurious wines dispensed freely (see tasting notes that follow). This sale drew some of New York’s most influential collectors, but there were no bids in the room for these items. Some in the saleroom speculated that the failure of these wines to sell might be due to a drop in demand from Asia.

Others suggested, however, that the estimates might have been too aggressive. For example, the estimate for the methuselah of 1993 La Tâche was $70,000-$100,000; one sold elsewhere this month for $55,000, while a six-litre bottle of 1993 Romanée-Conti sold for $160,000 last year. It would appear that the biggest danger to wine auctions is not flagging demand, political distraction in Asia, or even a looming recession, but consignors that insist on unrealistic estimates. Zachys proprietor Jeff Zacharia remains sanguine: ‘The Unicorn was our highest-ever one-day auction [and]…when the final gavel falls on September, it will be a $25m month.’

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