When two different Masters of Wine express reservations about the authenticity of wine being sold at auction, you have to sit up and take notice.
In lead-up to Vinexpo in HK I’m increasingly worried about the way fakes may be being offloaded in wine auctions in HK. Buyers, mega beware!
This wasn’t cryptic as regards Robinson’s fears — that there may be Hong Kong wine auctions selling fakes — but was vague on some key points. Why was she worried? How did she find out about this issue? Why did she use the word “offloaded;” could these alleged fakes not be sold elsewhere? And perhaps most importantly, which particular wines was she talking about? Granted that Twitter isn’t exactly the place for long analyses, but her one follow-up didn’t expand upon her fears either.
Luckily, some of the questions raised by Robinson’s stray tweet were answered the next day by Jeannie Cho Lee MW, one of the leaders in the Hong Kong wine world, in a series of related tweets on the subject. Here’s the first post of hers that I saw about the possible auction fakes, in full:
I am recvg many emails warning Asian buyers abt upcoming HK$125mill Acker auction. V difficult to assess how much is real vs rumour…
Now we know the allegedly offending auction house: Acker Merrall & Condit. And we also now know the allegedly offending auction: Acker’s mammoth wine auction (1,865 lots!) in Hong Kong scheduled for 28-29 May 2010, and which is imposingly titled “The Imperial Cellar”. These 140 characters also tell us how Lee found out that there may be fake wine being auctioned, through e-mails. From whom? That we don’t know.
Notice how both Robinson and Lee parse their words very carefully in these posts. Neither of them comes out and accuses anyone of anything, just that they are “increasingly worried” and are finding it very “difficult to assess how much is real” and how much is rumor. Of course, libel law may be part of the reason for the qualification of their comments (and I should make clear that I have no specific evidence of wrongdoing either, I’m just presenting the scuttlebutt and my thoughts on it).
Lee’s next tweet showed how seriously she took the accusation of fake wines at the Acker auction, however:
If anyone has evidence of questionable authenticity abt HK auction wines, pls send. Researching 4 article 4 ChinaBzNews w 800k readers. Thnx
This led me to ask her, on Twitter, why she was concerned about possible fakes, and Lee’s response clarified how she heard about this issue:
@wineauctionspy I have numerous emails frm US contacts who said many upcoming wines were rejected by other auction hses- believed 2 b fakes
Okay, now it is starting to become clear. Acker Merrall, an auction house based in New York, schedules a wine auction in Hong Kong, an increasingly important wine market, that Sommelier India calls “the largest wine auction ever conducted in Asia and the third largest in the world.” This huge auction features a exceptional selection of rare Bordeaux, the cream of collectible wines, including 450 bottles that are pre-1961, 181 bottles from the 1961 vintage, around 400 bottles from the 1982 vintage, and 3,000 bottles from the 2000 vintage. Needless to say, the 1961, 1982, and 2000 vintages are considered to be three of the four best, most collectible vintages of Bordeaux in the last 50 years (with the 2005 vintage being the fourth). That’s a lot of very, very good and very, very expensive wine. Oh, and there are 1,470 bottles of Romanée-Conti being auctioned in this sale too.
But this mother-lode of wine is only that good and that expensive if it is real.
Acker Merrall’s competitors know that, of course. Could any of them be the source of the mysterious e-mails claiming Acker is passing off fakes? I have no evidence of that one way or the other, but I’m not connected in the industry and so the evidence may exist unbeknownst to me. If so, these e-mails could just be the manifestation of jealousy that Acker Merrall is pulling off such a big auction in such an up-and-coming wine center. But allegations of counterfeits being sold at the “Imperial Cellar” may have the ring of truth because Acker Merrall has a history of auctioning, or almost auctioning, fake wine. In an April 2008 wine auction by Acker Merrall in New York, 107 bottles of rare Burgundy slated to be sold proved to be fraudulent and were withdrawn from bidding at the last moment. Further, a lawsuit filed last year asserts that Acker Merrall sold numerous lots of fake Burgundy and Bordeaux wines in 2005 and 2006.
I certainly don’t know which wine in Acker Merrall’s “Imperial Cellar” auction is real and which is fake. It could be that everything is 100% authentic; I hope so. But it behooves potential bidders to take Robinson’s advice and caveat emptor mega.