Dumping or Sharing?

It’s just understandable those with a taste fighting for impossible finds, yet, the joke somehow took place right under their noses today in Hong Kong – <A Methuselah of 1971 La Tache was withdrawn from Christie’s auction of  former HK chief secretary Henry Tang Ying-yen’s wines>

Henry Tang with help of Christie's sold off part of his Burgundy wine collection for over USD6 million last sat
Henry Tang with help of Christie’s sold off part of his Burgundy wine collection for over USD6 million

I wrote an article on 15March, a day before last weekend’s Henry Tang Christie’s Auction (15&16 March) on the authenticity of the rare-wine market especially in auctions these days where they have becoming the dumping ground for counterfeits (Hong Kong could be the most popular one being the world’s most profitable wine auction market last year with total sales of $130.3 million, well above New York ($56.1 million) and London ($29.3 million).   After it had been published, I had been warned by close friends that I am putting myself in a funny situation and I should go check my mailbox soon for “serious letter”. While to me,  it was the right thing to share with audiances about the situation in general today especially after FBI arrested Rudy Kuniawan for his billion dollar fine-wine fraud last year.

Rudy Kurniawan(in picture), a wine collector, was arrested in Los Angeles by the F.B.I. Rudy Kurniawan had ascended to the upper reaches of the wine world on both coasts, renowned as much for his palate as for his eye, fixed often on the highest of high-end bottles.In 2006, having helped push wine prices to steep heights, Kurniawan began selling enormous quantities of wine. In January 2006, Acker Merrall held an auction of Rudy’s wines that was named as “the Cellar.” Over two days at Cru, 1,742 lots brought in $10.6 million. Nine months later, at Café Gray in the Time Warner Center, Acker held “The Cellar 2” auction, with 2,310 lots grossed USD24.7 million, smashing the previous record set by Sotheby’s in 1999 by $10 million.
Rudy Kurniawan(in picture), a wine collector, was arrested in Los Angeles by the F.B.I. Rudy Kurniawan had ascended to the upper reaches of the wine world on both coasts, renowned as much for his palate as for his eye, fixed often on the highest of high-end bottles.
In 2006, having helped push wine prices to steep heights, Kurniawan began selling enormous quantities of wine. In January 2006, Acker Merrall held an auction of Rudy’s wines that was named as “the Cellar.” Over two days at Cru, 1,742 lots brought in $10.6 million. Nine months later, at Café Gray in the Time Warner Center, Acker held “The Cellar 2” auction, with 2,310 lots grossed USD24.7 million, smashing the previous record set by Sotheby’s in 1999 by $10 million.

Screen Shot 2013-03-20 at 12.38.15 AM

Not surprisingly though, since last sat, Don Cornwell, a Los Angeles-based lawyer has been circulating a counterfeit wine allegation about this auction on Wine Berserkers, a popular international forum on wine. Doubts have been cast on the authenticity of at least three lots of wine, Methuselah of 1971 DRC La Tache (lot 189), a 12-bottle case of 1978 DRC Montrachet (lot 256) and a three-bottle lot of 1959 Romanee-Conti (lot 165).  In response, Christie’s has insisted that it takes “all appropriate steps” to ensure that it does not sell inauthentic nor counterfeit wines.

Lot 256 sold for HK$847,000 – far more than the  top estimate of HK$600,000.  Lot 165 sold for HK$242,000. The wine collection fetched a total of HK$48 million.

In an e-mail Cornwell sent to David Elswood, global head of wine at Christie’s, and the FBI, he noted that Tang’s 1971 La Tache bears two signature labels, indicating it is a later version than the initial release, which bears a single signature label.

He said, “Lot 189 in the Henry Tang auction is a bottle with a two-signature label (of the 1972-73 vintage type), with a strip label from Foreign Brands with the fluid quantity stated in pints and ounces (whereas all other 1971 strip labels from Consolidated Distilled Products, Leroy, Frederic Wildman, Domaine Chandon, Young’s Markets, etc state the quantities in liters) and, most significantly, it bears bottle Number 0001.  I have long had concerns about the authenticity of the bottles of 1971 DRC wines bearing Foreign Brands strip labels as all other strip labels at that time were labeled with the fluid quality in liters….. It also seems difficult to believe that a late issue wine, such as Lot 189, would have the quantity labeled in pints and ounces.”

Cornwell also said that “While I don’t see any rational or logical explanation that could explain how late released Methuselahs could have two signature labels in combination with bottle Nos 0001 (Tang Bottle) or 0003 (Christie’s NY May 2007 bottle) printed on them, the one thing that the work that preceded this email demonstrates is that the auction houses have been extremely sloppy in their authentication efforts to date and that they need to be a hell of a lot more skeptical and a lot more careful about accepting big glass items from DRC for auction.”

Cornwell in his mail to Christie's said "First, Lot 165 has four digit bottle numbers instead of five."
The 3 bottle of 1959 Romanee Conti, the disputed.
Cornwell in his mail to Christie’s said “First, Lot 165 has four digit bottle numbers instead of five.”;
“Second, the neck labels on these bottles are brand new, bear no oxidation, dirt or stains of any kind and they are hand cut, not machine cut.”
Third, the wax capsules on these bottles are brand new, exhibit no oxidation or wear and are the wrong color for the vintage.
Cornwell said "Lot 165 has four digit bottle numbers instead of five. Except for bottles that have come from Rudy Kurniawan, every bottle of 1959 DRC that I have ever seen, including some Échézeaux and Grands Échézeaux I owned myself, bore five digit "numbers. See, for example, the attached photographs.
Photo: 59 La tache – HDH auction 5-16-08
Cornwell said “Lot 165 has four digit bottle numbers instead of five. Except for bottles that have come from Rudy Kurniawan, every bottle of 1959 DRC that I have ever seen, including some Échézeaux and Grands Échézeaux I owned myself, bore five digit “numbers. See, for example, the attached photographs.
Screen Shot 2013-03-20 at 12.59.40 AM
Cornwell, in his open letter posted to Wine Berserkers drew comparisons with Tang’s lot to those sold by Rudy Kurniawan, a controversial wine merchant who was arrested by the FBI last year for allegedly selling fake Burgundy wines, whom is facing his trial in New York next month

Cornwell also claimed there are issues with the bottles and wax, which he described as “not remotely believable”.  At the end of Cornwell’s 3rd mail to Christie’s,  he said, ” In my opinion, these bottles are clearly not authentic and the fact that this lot purportedly passed your authentication process I find astounding.” 

Christie’s withdrawing only lot 189 ahead of the auction.

Tang said he “has no reason to doubt their authenticity” and they were bought from a reputable British agent 20 years ago. “The agent has the records of them and I have no reason to doubt their authenticity.”

Barrister Albert Luk Wai-hung said that if the lots were proven to be counterfeit, customs and the police should step in. “If Tang truly believes the wines are authentic, he might not be liable,” he said.

Christie’s mentioned before the auction that “He’s at a point where there’s enough wine that he can share them with joy”

illustration from scmp.com
illustration from scmp.com

You can’t blame sellers’ innocence though.  Like when Laurent Ponsot was attending a 2008 Acker’s auction, trying to stop the sale of Rudy’s Domaine Ponsot with its Clos st. Denis vintages from 1959 to 71 (were possibly inspired by a bottle of Christine Ponsot 1947 Clos St-Denis bought by Rudy)  while Ponsot only started making it’s Clos St. Denis in the 80s.  “It’s Burgundy,” Kurniawan told a reporter afterward. “Sometimes shit happens.” .  

Screen Shot 2013-03-20 at 12.35.44 AM

As well, you can’t blame the drinkers too.  It’s indeed quite hard to tell the true taste of an old vintage bottle.  Who had really had the luck to taste the very rarest wines on earth many times and with the long storage age, same vintage may taste differently, not to mention top wine critics such as Allen Meadows had been fooled repeatedly by Rudy’s bottles.   Another incident In 2007 with Rudy threw a 60th-birthday party for his mother at Mélisse, a posh restaurant in Santa Monica.  Among the guests was the actor Jackie Chan; at one point Chan stood on a chair holding a jer­oboam of Château Pétrus from Rudy and shouted, “Rudy, you are the best!” Lots of collectors seemed to agree.

With another reputable auction house withdrawing lot, there seems little doubt that the fine-wine business is awash with fraudulent rarities and more due diligence should be done by 3rd party /auctioneers to protect all parties.

This is a big issue that effects all wine lovers whom own a collections or trying to own some.  An issue to be careful about.

This news bothers me whole day, I guess it is time for a good bottle or……not?

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