At first glance, global auction sales of fine and rare wine in the first half of 2016 seemed to represent little change from last year’s record. The global total of $138 million is just a 1 percent increase over the same period in 2015.
But a closer look at the top three markets—the United States, the United Kingdom and Hong Kong—shows some surges and a notable fall, demonstrating the unpredictable nature of the marketplace now. This year’s sales in the U.S. were up 10 percent at $84 million, while U.K. sales rose 19 percent to $15.5 million. Hong Kong was the only laggard, dropping 18 percent in sales to $38.7 million.
The slowdown in Asia's biggest auction market is partially due a shift in consignment practices. “With the strengthening market in the Americas, less wine is being shipped from the United States to Hong Kong for sale,” explained Jamie Ritchie, CEO of Sotheby’s global wine division. “Asian buyers are still incredibly important to all wine-auction sales worldwide, regardless of the location, and continue to lead global demand.” Because a significant demographic of Hong Kong collectors regularly bid on U.S. sales, any rise in performance of the Hong Kong market would most likely come at the expense of a faltering U.S. market.
An increase in New York sales was driven by factors such as new buyers from smaller markets (houses like Zachys and Sotheby’s quoted an unusual 8 percent of bidders from Mexico at some of their top auctions) and a resurgence of interest in vintage collectibles among domestic collectors. Pristine consignments from American cellars and ex-château offerings from acclaimed French and Italian wineries, such as Bordeaux’s Château Palmer and Tuscany’s Ornellaia, proliferated during the past six months.
Burgundy still leads the collectible category in terms of total sales by value, but Bordeaux and California selections like Harlan Estate and Screaming Eagle are trending upward. Familiar names like Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, Henri Jayer, Domaine Ponsot, Château Pétrus and Sine Qua Non continue to be in strong demand.
The season’s highlight was Sotheby’s three-day New York auction in late May of the remarkable cellar of billionaire collector William Koch, which brought in $21.9 million. The sale’s showstopper was a 10-bottle lot of the celebrated Château Mouton-Rothschild 1945, which sold for well above the presale estimate of $120,000 to bring in $343,000. Six magnums of Henri Jayer Vosne-Romanée Cros Parantoux 1989 sold for a stunning $171,500 (61 percent above estimate).
Spring brought several highlights in the U.S. market, boosting the national total of domestic 2016 auctions to $84 million. Sotheby’s New York led the American auction pack with $23.8 million in revenues, closely followed by Chicago-based Hart Davis Hart at $23.4 million and Zachys at $15 million.
Conducting an all-Burgundy auction in April, Hart Davis Hart gave bidders the opportunity to purchase wines from 159 different domaines, spanning vintages back to 1961. The sale brought in $5.65 million and was 100 percent sold. CEO Paul Hart credited certain highlights of the sale, saying “There were 36 vintages alone from Domaine de la Romanée-Conti.” That collection fetched $1.82 million of the auction’s total.
Direct consignments from four of France’s leading domaines—Roulot in Meursault, Marquis d’Angerville in Volnay and Compte Liger-Belair in Vosne-Romanée from Burgundy, and Domaine Jean-Louis Chave in the Northern Rhône—all sold above their high estimates at an Acker Merrall and Condit sale on April 9. There was a tie for the auction’s top lot, with 12 bottles of DRC Montrachet 2005 and six bottles of Ponsot Clos de la Roche Vieilles Vignes 1985 each commanding $43,225.
At Zachy’s auction in late January, bidding on choice lots from California wine maven Fred Schrader’s personal cellar reached a feverish pitch. A mixed 15-bottle lot of Schrader Beckstoffer To Kalon Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon spanning vintages from 2002 to 2013 realized more than $56,000 (nearly quadruple the high estimate). The collection as a whole achieved more than $1.5 million, nearly double the high estimate.
Looking ahead, John Kapon, CEO of Acker Merrall & Condit, said, “The wine market is heading in a positive direction. We look forward to a great second half.”
More than ever, the auction market has become extremely focused. Well-stored wine in excellent condition with impeccable provenance will continue to sell at a premium, as the Koch auction at Sotheby's (which topped the presale high estimate by 46 percent) demonstrated.
--Auction data compiled by assistant tasting coordinators Aleks Zecevic and Jon Miner.