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Third-Quarter Wine Auctions Send Mixed Signals

Many sale totals fell below estimates and percent-sold rates were lower than normal, but during the same period, several new auction records were set

Peter D. Meltzer

Posted: Tuesday, October 14, 2008

While wallets snapped shut in most sectors of the ailing economy during the third quarter of 2008, buyers of fine and rare wine were less reticent about digging deep into their pockets. Several record prices were achieved during the course of September, and Chicago's Hart Davis Hart even managed to pull off a 100 percent-sold auction in the midst of a financial meltdown. Nevertheless, a few cracks appeared in some segments of the auction market, evidenced by lower-than-usual percent-sold rates, and totals that fell below presale estimates.

In late September, San Francisco-based Bonhams & Butterfields only managed to sell 65 percent of its wines on offer, and Christie's posted an uncharacteristically low 77 percent-sold rate. Morrell & Co.'s auction was only 70 percent sold, with a sale total that fell below the presale estimate. Acker Merrall & Condit's two sales also dropped below the presale low estimate once the buyer's premium was factored in.

Hart Davis Hart posted the highest sale total in the third quarter, with an $11.2 million aggregate (exceeding the presale high estimate by almost $1 million). Zachys' "early fall sale" in New York was a solid 94 percent sold, achieving some very strong prices despite severe stock-market jitters. Investment-grade wines of pristine provenance seemingly have properties that can insulate themselves from dire economic downturns, for now.

In fairness, not all of the quarter's auctions fell into the same category, accounting for some of the disparities in results. Hart Davis Hart featured a pristine single-owner cellar, known as the Fox Collection, where most of the offerings were acquired as futures or upon release, over the course of several decades. Many of the other "bread and butter" sales did not proffer the same degree of provenance.

Incredibly, several new auction records were realized during the period. At Hart Davis Hart, a case of Château Lafite Rothschild 1982 brought $54,970, a new high per bottle, up 70 percent from the wine's second-quarter 2008 Wine Spectator Auction Index average price. At Zachys, a six-pack of Moët & Chandon Brut Champagne Cuvée Dom Pérignon Oenothèque 1976 sold for $9,600, an all-time high for that wine and up 148 percent from the last time it was sold at auction, in the second quarter of 2007.

At Acker Merrall on Sept. 27, Château Rayas Châteauneuf-du-Pape 1990 set a new high for a lot, fetching $26,620 for six magnums (up 16 percent from the wine's second-quarter Auction Index average). Earlier in the month, Acker sold a superlot containing 25 imperials of Château Mouton-Rothschild 1995 for $187,550 (up 70 percent from the second quarter), while a single imperial of the wine sold for more per-bottle previously, this lot was exceptional for its size and total price.

At the other end of the spectrum, at NYWinesChristie's, two double magnums of Mouton-Rothschild 1986 commanded just $4,800 and an imperial of Latour 2000 fetched $9,600, respectively 53 percent and 31 percent below their second-quarter 2008 Wine Spectator Auction Index averages. At Zachys, a six-pack of Armand Rousseau Chambertin-Clos de Bèze 1997 fetched $1,440 (down 54 percent from its second-quarter Auction Index average).

John Kapon, Acker's auction director, said that second-tier wines seemed to be affected the most during the quarter—vintages like 1975 or '78 Bordeaux—along with wines from good but not consistently great producers. "The market appears to be polarizing, but fine and rare wines always seem to find a way," he observed.

Given the stock market's remarkable rebound on Oct. 13, and then its slip today, fourth-quarter 2008 auction results, which seemed to be heading due south, may ultimately hold more surprises.