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For wine auctions, it's been another very good year

[NEW YORK] A decade before the United States declared itself independent of Britain, the London auctioneer James Christie had his very first sale. The auction, held on Dec 5, 1766, included a feather bed and pillow, 12 oblong dishes, a pair of candlesticks and a substantial section devoted to wine.

More than three dozen cases of Bordeaux - also known as claret - and Madeira made it on the block that day, making it one of the biggest features of the event.

That auction business eventually became Christie's, now the global company owned by the French billionaire François Pinault.

"Wine has been there from the beginning," said Richard Harvey, the head of wine sales for Bonhams, which is based in London and has branches worldwide. "It was one of those more everyday items when auctions were not as focused on fine art."

For the next couple of centuries, wine auctions remained a London-centric activity, a reliable staple but not a focus of the overall business for the big houses, or much of a headline-grabber.

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But beginning in the 1990s, wine auctions underwent two global shifts. The momentum first moved to the United States when New York legalised wine auctions in 1994.

"From that moment up until 2008, the North American wine buyer was the least price sensitive," said Jamie Ritchie, the head of wine sales for Sotheby's. And because auction houses charge a buyer's premium on the hammer price, those are the buyers they are always seeking out.

New York's day in the sun was short-lived, as it turns out. In Hong Kong, wine auctions began in 2008, and just two years later, after a deep recession in the West, a formerly nonexistent category became, for Sotheby's, bigger than sales for Europe and North America combined.

These days you can attend live wine auctions in Beverly Hills, California; London; New York; Paris; Chicago; Hong Kong and many other places around the world. (Internet-only auctions of wine are prevalent, too.)

Fall is traditionally the marquee season, with the best bottles on offer.

Last weekend, a two-day sale at Sotheby's Hong Kong demonstrated the strength of the Asian market. The slate of more than 1,700 lots brought in US$14.5 million, beating the high estimate of US$13 million. Highlights included a 12-bottle case of Château Le Pin 1982 that sold for just over US$206,000 - around US$17,000 a bottle - and a lot of Château Cheval Blanc 2010 that brought US$166,000.

At Christie's London, the Oct 10 sale includes a 12-bottle case of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Romanée-Conti 1988, from the world's most sought-after single wine producer, estimated to bring in more than US$200,000. (Though it's been usurped as a price leader, London is still a rich source of wine auctions.)

The geography of the live auction venues has expanded, but the geography of the lots has been more consistent. A typical high-end wine sale is largely French, dominated by bottles of Bordeaux and Burgundy in particular.

In 2017, for example, those regions each accounted for around 40 per cent of Sotheby's yearly totals, leaving only 20 per cent for the rest of the world. That last sliver was made up primarily of the French regions of Rhône and Champagne; wines from the United States, Italy and Spain; and spirits.

"The nature of wines that make it to the secondary market are those that maintain value or increase in value over time, and it's not as many you'd think," Mr Ritchie said. "People think we can lead the market, but we can't. We reflect the market."

Collectors like the track record of producers like Château Haut-Brion of Bordeaux, for instance, because they think the wine ages well and consistently, particularly in famously good vintages like 1990.

For centuries, Bordeaux was the main event in high-end sales, partly because the top labels are made in enough quantity to make a collectible market. But Burgundy, which is generally made by small producers, in relatively tiny amounts, has become a driving force largely because of interest from Asia.

"A general trend for Asia has been the shift from Bordeaux to Burgundy in recent years," with producers like Domaine de la Romanée-Conti and Domaine Leroy "replacing Château Lafite Rothschild on many a Hong Kong restaurant dining table," said Chris Munro, head of the Christie's wine and spirits department for the Americas.

Which helps explain why just two magnums of Henri Jayer Richebourg 1985 went for more than US$94,000 in November 2017 at Christie's Hong Kong. (Magnums are equivalent to two regular bottles.)

Although Henri Jayer is a sought-after Burgundy name, another coveted label, Romanée-Conti, dominates the wine auction market so thoroughly at present that there is no comparison on the art side.

Sotheby's New York is staging a sale on Oct 13 that proves the point, offering the personal cellar of Robert Drouhin. He is part of the family that runs an acclaimed Burgundy wine producer, Maison Joseph Drouhin. But the contents are around 90 per cent Romanée-Conti wines. It's as if Jeff Koons were auctioning off dozens of Ai Weiwei works.

Estimates for the Drouhin cellar are predictably high - thousands of dollars a bottle - but in the context of Sotheby's entire business, wine is small relatively potatoes. Often the entire sale totals are less than that of a single, non-record-breaking impressionist painting.

Hence the search for new markets like Asia, as well as new types of bottles to sell. In the latter category, spirits, in particular Scotch whisky, have gone from zero to hero for the auction houses in the space of a few years.

"The growth of spirits is very new," Mr Munro said. "In the last six months, there's been a surge in prices, especially in New York and especially for Macallan whiskies. And more to come on that in various locations, I think."

Bonhams set a world record for whisky in May, when a bottle of Macallan Valerio Adami 1926 60-year-old went for US$1.1 million in Hong Kong. The house now does dedicated whisky sales there and in Edinburgh.

"It used to be a niche activity in the UK, but now the big interest is coming from mainland China," Mr Harvey said.

Collectors who have not exhausted their fall budgets on the myriad coming sales of art, furniture, antiques and other collectibles are advised that another bottle of the record-breaking Macallan will be up for sale on Wednesday at the Bonhams whisky auction in Edinburgh; it is estimated to again fetch around US$1 million.

A small price to pay to be a part of the long history of bottles up for bid. Right?


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