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World’s most expensive bottle claimed fake as renowned collector sued

A billionaire Florida wine collector is suing German collector and dealer Hardy Rodenstock for fraud.

William Koch, an American industrialist, alleges that four bottles of Bordeaux he bought after Rodenstock attributed them to Thomas Jefferson are fakes.

Koch’s suit, filed in New York federal court last Thursday, stems from his purchase of a 1784 and 1787 Château Lafite, and a 1784 and 1787 Château Branne-Mouton – Mouton-Rothschild’s predecessor – which originated from Rodenstock.

One of the bottles was bought from a Chicago firm, the other three from a London dealer, all in 1988, according to the documents.

When a cache of more than a dozen bottles engraved ‘Th.J.’ reportedly came to light in 1985, Rodenstock said they had been found in a walled-up cellar in Paris, where Jefferson served as minister to France. Jefferson, who helped draft America’s Declaration of Independence, became the country’s third President.

The exact quantity of wine reportedly found, and the precise location of the cache, have never been established. Rodenstock told decanter.com that in 1985 he was told of the find, and flew to Paris to see the bottles, which he was told he must pay cash for. He will not say who called him, and says that he did not go to the actual house.

In 1985 he told the New York Times there were three bottles of 1784 and 1787 Château d’Yquem, three 1787 Lafite, three Château Margaux from 1787 and three 1787 Château Branne-Mouton, predecessor of today’s Mouton-Rothschild. He indicated there were more from each Château but withheld details and said he had three bottles without identification.

Three of the bottles were sold at Christie’s between 1985 and 1987: the 1787 Lafite, a 1784 Château d’Yquem, and a half-bottle of 1784 Château Margaux.

Malcolm Forbes, the late publisher, paid US$156,450 for the 1787 Lafite in the 1985 auction, a single-bottle auction record that remains unsurpassed. That bottle is in the possession of Forbes Management Company.

In reporting on Koch’s suit, The Wall Street Journal said that in 2005 the Boston Museum of Fine Arts asked Koch (pronounced ‘coke’) to prove the provenance of the hand-blown bottles when displaying his collection, which includes works of fine art.

Koch assembled a team of former FBI and British intelligence agents, wine and glass experts, Sotheby’s former head of wine sales, David Molyneux-Berry, even a nuclear physicist, the Journal reported.

Scientific testing of the 1787 Lafite wine concluded inconclusively that it had been made before 1945. But after working with glass specialists, Koch holds that the Th. J. initials on the bottles were engraved using ‘an electric power tool or tools with a flexible shaft’ that did not exist in the 18th Century.

Koch also says the Forbes company allowed his engraving experts to test their bottle – bought at Christie’s in 1985 – and found it to be fraudulent.

Contacted yesterday, Rodenstock said he had not heard from Koch’s lawyers and that ‘I can affirm in lieu of an oath in court at any time that I haven’t faked these bottles.’

He also said that Christie’s experts in 1985 who ‘analysed the glass, type and engraving with great accuracy’ concluded that ‘everything was absolutely genuine.’

Christie’s wine director Michael Broadbent told decanter.com the verification process included analysis of the bottles by Christie’s glass experts, who confirmed the glass was of the period. The engraved initials were also confirmed as of the period, both by Christie’s and by an expert from the British Library, which examined the style of the lettering.

The bottles and contents have been analysed on numerous occasions. One bottle of the 1787 Lafite was found in 1987 to contain ‘an unspecified amount post-1960’ according to Broadbent’s book Vintage Wine – which can be accounted for by possible later tampering with the wine, he says.

Finally, a 1992 analysis in Zurich by scientists who had worked on the Turin Shroud established ‘beyond doubt’, Broadbent says, the authenticity of a half bottle of the 1787 Lafite. ‘No question about the bottle. It was correct, and, after a long and expensive process, the cork and the wine were also found to be absolutely correct,’ Vintage Wine says.

Written by Howard G Goldberg and Adam Lechmere

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