Interest in Online Wine and Liquor Auctions Is Booming

Stuck at home, wine collectors appear to be browsing auctions with their free time.

Photo: JEFF PACHOUD/AFP via Getty Images

Self-isolation during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic has people from all walks of life turning to their laptops and tablets to stream food shows or Google how to bake bread. But for the kind of affluent people who partake in high-end wine auctions, recent numbers suggest they're using some of this downtime to do engage in another online activity: browsing fine wine auctions.

For its most recent Wine & Spirits Online auction — which ran from March 24 to April 7 — Christie's auction house saw what some might consider unexpectedly high interest from around the globe. The online event — which ultimately earned $1,116,075 across its more than 800 lots — brought in bidders from 31 countries on five continents. Those numbers grow even higher when you account for non-bidders: People from 118 countries popped in for at least a peek at the auction.

"This sale received an unprecedented number of unique visitors, over 20% above the average for online wine sales, and from across the world," Chris Munro, head of wine at Christie's Americas, was quoted as saying. "As more people are homebound, we do expect to see an increase in consumption. Rather than going out, people are making more meals in their homes and likely going into their cellars to find the appropriate pairing."

The trend goes beyond Christie's. Jamie Ritchie, worldwide head of Sotheby's Wine, told me via email that, for its auctions, Sotheby's is "anticipating increased bidding and seeing significant interest from buyers who are new to Sotheby's."

"We believe that the market remains strong for both wines and whisky, at all price levels, as people have time at home to focus on what is available and the appetite to buy for current drinking or special occasions, which will be even more treasured," Ritchie explained. Sotheby's is currently holding an online spirits sale and has an online wine auction set to open on April 13.

He continued, "Sotheby's has seen strong prices in our online auctions across many categories, including Watches, Photographs, Jewelry and Design, as well as recently achieving a number of record prices as illustrated by our sale of the most valuable bottle of Japanese whisky, a bottle of Karuizawa 52 Year Old Cask #5627 Zodiac Rat 1960 which sold for $435,273." That bottle sold on March 18, against what Ritchie billed as "a backdrop of extraordinary circumstance."

Meanwhile, auction house and wine shop Acker Merrell & Condit also moved about $7 million worth of wine over the past two weekends, according to Decanter. "The fine wine market is quite healthy and amazingly resilient at the moment," John Kapon, chairman of Acker Merrall & Condit, told the site: "People still want their wine!"

Certainly, the people who buy their wine at auction and those who buy at shops make up different demographics; however, these increased auction numbers certainly fit into the overall wine buying trend. Nielsen says retail wine sales overall spiked in March, up 27 percent for the final week of the month year over year. And yes, pricey wines may seem like an unnecessary expense during the current economic uncertainty, but at the same time, compared to the kind of prices someone would expect to pay for these wines while dining out at a restaurant, buying them at auction for home consumption could be a relative bargain. Just be prepared to pay an additional premium to outbid other bored wine lovers also stuck in front of their laptops on their couches.

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