The trick to buying wine at auction is to know the market price, make sure the wines come from a good home, and bid at price that suits you, without getting carried away.
Do your homework, enjoy the process, and you can do well buying wine at auction. If you don't follow these basic guidelines, you could find yourself taken for a ride.
My wine auction days go back to when I belonged to a wine auction syndicate created by the composer, Colin Matthews. When not composing or conducting classical music, Colin would go to Christie’s and Sotheby’s in the days before online auctions arrived in the late 1990s, and bid on behalf of our small, wine-loving group.
We were private buyers and auction houses don’t distinguish between private and trade buyers. I was always excited to see what my share of the vinous booty would bring, since being part of a small group introduced me to a world of delicious, mature wines that I would never have been able to afford, or even find, if I’d searched for them in a retail shop.
Like a shark to its prey, this first taste of the wine auction scene had me hooked, and soon, I was attending live auctions myself, mostly Christie’s and Sotheby’s in London and occasionally Phillips in Oxford too. At my first Phillips auction, I remember seeing a young wine van driver with the wine merchant La Réserve standing at the back and frequently raising his hand.
Years later, Stephen Browett was to become a hugely successful partner in Farr Vintners, today one of the world’s top wine brokers. To think, if only I’d summoned up the courage to say hello, I too could have been as rich as Croesus.
Those first auctions I attended bristled with anticipation, or perhaps it was just me doing the bristling as I was a greenhorn. The first step was to get on the mailing list in order to receive the auction catalogue.
There’s nothing quite like a beautifully produced auction catalogue. Along with conditions of sale, premiums and delivery charges, the catalogue contains stunning photographs of the best bottles for sale, with a description of the condition of the bottle in question, low to high estimate, and, as often as not a tasting note, latterly aided and abetted by a Robert Parker or other well-known critic’s score.
Following her arrival at Sotheby’s in 1991, Serena Sutcliffe, known to the wine trade as La Serenissima, was to become the queen of the mouthwatering tasting note.
In the early days, I would walk stealthily across Christie’s plush carpets in King Street, admiring the paintings on the way. As often as not, there was the chance to taste a wine in a desired lot before the auction itself.
That went by the board, although the practice was revived in Hong Kong. It wasn’t so long ago that I attended an Acker Merrill Condit auction there with some very grand wines to taste beforehand, poured by the producers themselves, among them Eric Rousseau from Domaine Armand Rousseau.
A lavish dinner ensued with young women draping themselves over potential bidders and lubricating their wine glasses from magnums and jeroboams of fine Burgundy. Be warned.
I generally preferred Christie’s to Sotheby’s because the auction was often taken by the charismatic figure of Michael Broadbent himself. You would simply raise your hand to bid, but perhaps because of the danger of selling to someone innocently scratching their head, the system changed to paddles with numbers on them.
I once made a successful bid for three magnums of Henriot’s Baron Philippe de Rothschild, and, after the champagnes were knocked down to me at a bargain price, Michael Broadbent came up to me afterwards and said he’d had his eye on that lot himself if it hadn’t sold.
The auction catalogue itself a mine of useful information, to be pored over before attending an auction firstly obviously to mark one’s card, but, as importantly, to check the price range and such details as whether or not the desired wine is duty paid or available in bond, the latter the investor’s preferred option as it’s easier to on-sell.
Whereas catalogues were once content to mention provenance in such quaint terms such as ‘The Property of a Gentleman’, today, questions of the condition and provenance of the wine have taken centre stage. This is because of fraud. The dubious 1787 Château Lafite supposedly belonging to Thomas Jefferson was a warning shot across the bows.
It was part of a cache of wine claimed to have been discovered behind a bricked-up wall in Paris by Hardy Rodenstock, but the slippery German collector never came clean with his sources. Then in 2013, an American-Indonesian fraudster, Rudy Kurniawan, was jailed for 10 years for an elaborate counterfeiting racket, whose repercussions are still felt throughout auction rooms today.
Since the late 1990s, the internet and the development of online auctions from has expanded the market for buying both wine to drink and investment wine to lay down. A rapidly growing auction scene in the US allowed New York to take over from London in 1999.
The opening up of Hong Kong in 2007 created an Asian hub for the rapidly expanding Asian markets, while Langtons in Australia, with its wine auctions and its classification of Australian wine, has done a great job of helping to create recognition and a secondary market for Australia’s finest wines.
The thrill of the live auction may no longer be quite what it was, but online auctions have added choice and convenience to the sale of fine wines globally. It also makes it easier for the nervous twitchers of this world to avoid having a wine knocked down to them after raising an innocent hand, a reminder that the watchword when buying wine at auction should always be caveat emptor.
Making a bid? Five things to thing about!
1. Once you know what lot to bid for, make up your mind on the price you’re going to offer and stick to it.
2. If there is a lot which is an 11-bottle case, avoid it. The seller probably tried the first bottle, didn’t like it, or found it faulty, and put it up for auction.
3. Forming a small group of three of four helps to share the financial load and gives you more flexibility when it comes to buying more than one case of wine.
4. If you’re investing rather than collecting, make sure you buy in bond, if possible, as it’s much easier then to dispose of the wine to a collector in another country.
5. If the description in the catalogue fails to inspire you with confidence because the ullage level is low or the provenance suspect, avoid.