Auction Action 08

Auction Action 08
This column is roaring back to life after an autumn hiatus. The perfect topic for the last day of the year is wine auctions, something I’ll be coming back to more frequently in 2009.

October, November, and December are the high holy days for buying wine, with dozens of important auctions in cities around the globe. But this year the major sales of the highest-end stuff had the misfortune of coinciding with an economic collapse (perhaps you read something about that — it was in all the papers). So what happened when the falling Dow met the steadily rising interest in wine?

Well, as with the art market, a big correction began in late October. “Collectors really reined in their spending,” says Peter Meltzer, the longtime wine auction writer for Wine Spectator and author of Keys to the Cellar: Strategies and Secrets of Wine Collecting.

At most houses, sale totals dropped, and the percentage of lots sold also took a dive. At Christie’s November 21 sale in New York, which focused on the number-one most sought-after Burgundy producer, Domaine de la Romanée Conti, the department managed to unload only 31 percent of its lots — an unheard-of number for a top-tier wine auction.

The results weren’t all as bad as that. Between the worldwide outlets of Sotheby’s and Christie’s alone, there were 18 sales since October 1, and many of them hovered in the 70 percent sold range. But business has definitely slowed, and the negative trend is newsworthy. Since fine wine auctions were legalized in New York in 1994, they have basically gone only one direction: “up, up, up,” as Jamie Ritchie, head of U.S. wine sales for Sotheby’s, recently put it to me.

In a way, the declines of the last quarter only serve to highlight what a great year 2008 was for wine auctions up until the economy caught up with them. In terms of worldwide sales (mainly the U.S. and the U.K.), the wine departments of both Christie’s and Sotheby’s had their third biggest years ever, with $50 million and $44 million in grosses, respectively. Had things not gone south, they were on track to post record numbers.

But amid the gloom of the last three months, somehow the Chicago-based Hart Davis Hart pulled off a sale that felt like the boom times again. On December 6, well into the slump, the well-respected outfit offered a huge number of lots (1,064) and still came through with a whopping 99.8 sell-through rate. This followed a sale the previous month with a 99.3 percent rate, contributing to what Meltzer calls the “highest standard in the fine and rare wine industry.” What are they doing differently?

The house’s president and CEO, Paul Hart, cites a few reasons for success — including long-serving employees and the top-flight service those staffers provide (but other houses have that, too), as well as the lowest buyer’s premium among the top wine auctioneers, 19.5 percent. But one factor rings most true: When HDH saw what was happening with the economy, they adjusted their estimates to be more realistic. (Other houses may have tried, but they didn’t calibrate as wisely.)

Sometimes all it takes is a small adjustment to do the trick. For a magnum of Harlan Estate Red Wine 1995, one of the so-called Napa “cult” Cabernets, Hart took an estimate of $1,000–1,500 from his November 1 sale and made it $900–1,400 for the December sale. That actually netted him a higher sale price: $1,553 versus $1,434 a month earlier.And Hart points out, “Our estimates have always been lower than everyone else’s. We’ve always had a more conservative approach.”

Look for others to emulate that approach with a whole new set of subdued estimates when the 2009 wine auction season gets going in February.