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Playing the Auction Game

By Debra Meiburg MW

Looking for a little extra boost to your exercise program? Try vigorous sets of paddle-lifting. Not a week goes by without hearing the latest flashy headline about Hong Kong wine auctions. And it seems Asian buyers are becoming more and more diversified in their collecting tastes and buying habits. The spring wine auction season kicked off in April with Zachy’s Hong Kong Auction, reportedly their most successful here to date. Last Saturday, the Shangri-la was host to Zachy’s May auction which featured nearly HK$50 million of the world’s finest and rarest wines. Results from Sotheby’s two- day ‘Ultimate Cellar’ wine sale at the beginning of April were way above the already high expectations as US$12.4 million changed hands, substantially more than the high of US$9.9 million that Sotheby’s had anticipated. Both Bonhams and Christie’s will each hold paddle raising events this week. The wine trade is holding its breath to see if the gavel bangers will achieve the super-heated prices and unprecedented successes of last fall.

Whether buying on-site or on-line, getting into the auction game is easy – you simply complete the on-line registration in advance or turn-up on the day. With depreciated currency values and collectors increasingly interested in, uh, liquidating a few assets, bargains can be found, especially with the labels less well-known in Asia, such as the California cult wines.

When buying for investment purposes, it is advised to hunt for lots that have been highly rated and affirmed by established international critics, such as Robert Parker, Jancis Robinson, Allen Meadows or Stephen Tanzer or the top international wine review magazines so the wines will be easier to resell. If shopping for purely for pleasure, keep an eye peeled for the wines not selling at a clip; they might simply be unknown to the other bidders. As half-bottles can also appear on the roster, be sure to ascertain the bottle size before bidding and if lots are sold as cases, then double-check how many bottles to a case.

When it comes to resale value, the fewer times a wine has changed hands, the better, which is why wines with flawless provenance command a slight premium. These premiums become more obvious when it comes to wines auctioned ‘’ex- chateau”, meaning wine that didn’t leave the winery until consignment with the auction house. When dipping into older vintages, the premium is also higher as there is increased risk of fakes. Wines packed in their original wooden cases, usually noted as “OWC” in the catalogues, command a small premium also as they are deemed more likely to be authentic.

All of the auction houses presently operating in Hong Kong are highly reputable with teams of experts who examine the wines and their documentation closely to evaluate condition, provenance and authenticity. One important clue as to the wine’s condition is the ullage, or the gap between the wine and the cork. With age or poor cellaring, these fill-levels drop and a wine with a ‘’low-shoulder” may have already peaked. For high-value purchases, it is worthwhile asking for a condition report and information as to the number of previous owners a few weeks before the auction. Top auction houses, such as Sotheby’s, articulate the wine’s fill levels and provide photos of older bottles in their catalogues.

While it is possible to bid on-line, there is an advantage to showing up in person: pre-auction tastings. Vintage wines are often poured before the gavel pounding begins, providing a superb opportunity to sample rare vintages. Another benefit of bidding in-house is the tasty array of snacks provided by increasingly competitive auction houses. Of course, snacks and wine puts the skids on the exercise program – so keep raising the paddle.

Comments 2 Comments for “Playing the Auction Game”
  1. Robert McCowan on 06.30.11 at 12:12

    I own a unopened bottle of 1928 Dom Perignon Champagne that Wine Gavel is expressing interest in auctioning for me.
    Is this a reputable wine auction house? And, where would one go to determine their viability?

  2. Debra Meiburg MW on 07.01.11 at 17:18

    1928, lucky you! I afraid that I do not know Wine Gavel, so couldn’t comment. I’ll check around. Anyone else know Wine Gavel?

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