Would you pay up to $28,000 for a nearly one-century-old bottle of wine labeled with a green pen?

By Mike Pomranz
June 11, 2020
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Credit: Charles O'Rear/Corbis/VCG/Getty Images

I tend to be skeptical of any bottle of alcohol with a handwritten label. And if that label claims the liquid inside is a nearly-century-old vintage from one of the most renowned wineries in the world, that’s strike number two. And despite all this, if the asking price is still between $20,000 and $28,000, well, in the case of an auction in Hong Kong, it was three strikes and you’re out.

In the lead up to a wine auction that took place today, Acker Merrall & Condit’s Hong Kong-based Asia Auction division decided to pull a bottle of red wine featuring “Romanée Conti 1924” scrawled in green pen on a self-adhesive white label after questions were raised about the wine’s authenticity. The bottle—Lot 710—had a guide price of HK$160,000 to HK$220,000, so up to $28,400.

For those unfamiliar with the Burgundy powerhouse, Domaine de la Romanée Conti produces some of the world’s most coveted—and priciest—wines. In 2018, a 1945 Romanée-Conti set the world record for the most expensive bottle of wine after selling at auction for $558,000.

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As for the suspicious “1924” bottle, The Drinks Business reports that concerns emerged on the wine forum WineBerserkers.com. There, user Don Cornwell—said to be a Los Angeles-based attorney—posted an extensive warning explaining why he believed the bottle to be fake.

Beyond the unconventional label, Cornwell’s further suspicions included the “non-original wax capsule” and the bottle’s glass “which is highly wrinkled and irregularly shaped,” which he claims “is absolutely not a bottle utilized by [the winery] in that era.” Cornwell, who wrote that he emailed the auction house his concerns multiple times without receiving a response, ended his critique by saying, “It is incomprehensible that anyone in the wine auction business would be offering bottles with no labels of any kind and no domaine capsuling and selling them as a purported wine of a given vintage. Moreover, offering such a bottle for an estimated price in excess of $20,000 is reprehensible.”

Eventually, Acker Merrall & Condit did choose to remove the bottle from the auction. However, in an emailed statement, chairman John Kapon seemed to stand by its authenticity.

“Lot 710 in our upcoming June Hong Kong auction had been acquired by our consignor at a Zachys auction in September 2012,” he began. “As noted in our auction catalog, it was and remains our understanding that this bottle had been from the cellar of Aziz Khan, an extremely prominent and well known collector.  Moreover, it was and remains our understanding that this bottle had originally been imported into the United States many years ago by Collectors’ Cellar—a company owned by Bipin Desai, a legendary figure in the fine and rare wine world and a person of impeccable credibility.  Notwithstanding the bottle’s provenance, we determined that the most prudent and appropriate course of action under the circumstances was to withdraw Lot 710 from the sale and that is what we did.”

Geoffrey Troy, president at New York Wine Warehouse, explained to me these kinds of auctions can take place, but that the auction house should be very clear about the situation. “I think if the bottles have historical significance, it is ok to sell them, providing that the authentication team thinks it’s what it is supposed to be, and they clearly state ‘Believed to Be’ [in the listing],” he told me via email. “But as a caveat, I do not think it should be done on a regular basis. I think the bottle should have a compelling reason for a sale without a label.”

Meanwhile, after reviewing Cornwell’s critique and looking at Kapon’s response, W. Blake Gray—U.S. editor for Wine-Searcher—suggested another concern. He writes that Acker Merrall & Condit was previously associated with the now-infamous wine fraudster Rudy Kurniawan who is currently serving a ten-year prison sentence. “What kind of protocols, if any, has Acker Merrall & Condit instituted to protect buyers since [then]?” he asks.

Of course, in Acker Merrall & Condit defense, if this bottle is counterfeit, it’s some pretty lazy (maybe even reverse-psychology-style) counterfeiting: Isn’t a handwritten label a warning in and among itself? If you were to put in a bid on a painting because someone slapped a handwritten Picasso sticker on it, isn’t it buyer beware?

“All auctions have that caveat, ‘buyer beware,’” Troy said, “but in my opinion, I think the auction house has a responsibility to do their due diligence and go out of their way to protect themselves and the buyer.”