Selling The Cellar

Christie's is renowned for securing enormous prices for fine works of art from living legends and old-world masters alike. But wine experts have criticized the auction house for its links to counterfeit wine.

Between 2006 and 2013, at five different auctions, Christie's New York wine department attempted to sell wines that experts say were fake. Experts note that before two auctions, Christie's pulled the wines when they were confronted about their backgrounds. At a third auction, Christie's continued to auction off a wine it was warned was a fake, although no buyers came forward to purchase it. At two additional auctions, experts say Christie's sold fake wine, and in one such instance two experts warned the auction house the wines were linked to a known wine counterfeiter.

"I would not trust them to do any research," says Josh Wertlieb, a wholesale fine-wine trader, who explains that Christie's failure to properly vet or maintain the provenance of suspicious wines is the reason he no longer buys many old wines from Christie's.

"Rarities, oddities or stuff that does not have a clear chain of custody, absolutely not," he says. Of its past wine dealings, Wertlieb adds: "Christie's New York has not exercised the best judgment."

Current and former heads of the Christie's New York wine departments have been a target for pointed criticism. Wertlieb says that before a November 2, 2006, auction, he warned Richard Brierley, who served as head of Christie's North American wine sales from 2001 to 2008, that he was selling a three-liter 1949 Domaine de la Romanee Conti La Tache he previously had been offered for sale, only with lower pour level — indicating, to him, that wine had been added to the bottle. He says Christie's still put the bottle on the market, but no one ultimately bought it at auction.

Brierley, who now works as a wine consultant in London, responded in an email that he did not recall the conversation with Wertlieb and that he would "no longer have access to confidential client records at Christie's in relation to the lot cited." He countered that there was no sold lot price at that auction for a 1949 Domaine de la Romanee Conti La Tache, adding in an email that "unsold and withdrawn lots are not listed."

"If an auction house is going to sell someone's cellar and they find some dodgy bottles, they don't want to piss off the seller by saying, 'Sorry, we can't sell these.'"

Christie's is not the only auction house that has been associated with the sale of fake wines. Rudy Kurniawan sold a great deal of wine in 2006 at two major sales hosted by Acker Merrall & Condit.

"Acker has NEVER knowingly sold fake wine from Mr. Kurniawan or any other consignor," says AMC's John Kapon via email.

Auction houses are in a difficult position: They use wine consignments to land more expensive works of art, and in telling customers their wine collections are fake, they risk jeopardizing the relationship.

"If an auction house is going to sell someone's cellar and they find some dodgy bottles, they don't want to piss off the seller by saying, 'Sorry, we can't sell these,'" says Benjamin Wallace, the author of The Billionaire's Vinegar, which chronicles the sale of the first so-called Thomas Jefferson bottles — by far the most high-profile case of wine fraud, in which wines purported to have been owned by Jefferson were proven fake.

Christie's association with fake wine bottles has continued.

Wallace provided email correspondence with Christie's regarding a September 16, 2006, auction of a 1784 Chateau Lafitte, which in the end the auction house agreed to withhold from sale.

"Ben," the email reads. "Per your query on our upcoming sale and the 1784 Lafite, we have decided in working with the consignor of the property to withdraw this bottle in order to protect their interests and those of any potential buyers. New concerns have come to light since the catalogue was published. Best, [REDACTED], Public Relations, CHRISTIE'S."

It turns out the bottle was older than any bottle that Chateau Lafitte itself owned.

In another case, from December 10, 2010, Wertlieb says he was outbid at a Christie's auction for a magnum of 1962 Domaine de la Romanee Conti La Tache that sold for $22,800. Wertlieb explains that he later learned that the magnum was a fake associated with now-convicted fraudster Kurniawan. Wertlieb notified the magnum's eventual owner, an Arizona-based physician with whom he was acquainted, that the bottle was fake.

After consulting with the FBI, the magnum's owner persuaded Christie's to take the magnum back. But then, in May 2013, when Christie's New York wine department was run by Per Holmberg, Wertlieb said that the same suspect magnum was put up for auction again and asked a top estimate of $24,000. It was eventually pulled from auction.

"We as a wine industry owe it to each other and we owe it to our consumers to do better."

In the wine world — often as rarefied and privileged as the fine-art industry — collectors and fraud experts say Christie's has angered enough retailers, collectors and wine-fraud investigators that many in the industry have begun openly criticizing the business practices of the current and former heads of its New York wine department.

The proximity of Christie's to high-profile counterfeiters in America runs alongside its wine department's slipping market share here: The global sales for Christie's wine division declined 30 percent between 2013 and 2014, down from $75.6 million to $53 million, according to data tracked by Wine Spectator.

But the actions of Christie's wine department may have more of an impact on its reputation than its bottom line, as wine generates little revenue compared to its big-ticket art sales. Data reported by Wine Spectator and The Wall Street Journal show that Christie's $53 million in the sale of wine worldwide is less than 1 percent of its $5.9 billion in total sales of art and collectibles.

Over the same period, Sotheby's, a Christie's rival, experienced a 13 percent rise in revenues, according to auction data collected by Wine Spectator.

Christie's did not respond to our requests for comment.

Certified wine educator and wine-fraud expert Maureen Downey recounts a story from 2009 in which Charles Curtis, a former head of Christie's New York wine department who succeeded Brierley, sold wine associated with Kurniawan, who is currently serving a prison sentence for wire fraud in relation to an extensive wine-fraud operation he ran. Downey says she warned Curtis publicly not to sell Kurniawan's bottles on the grounds that they were fake.

"I had a conversation with him in front of other masters of wine and said to him, 'You know Rudy got caught selling counterfeit [wines]," Downey says. "You cannot do business with this guy; you can't do it. Charles Curtis's response to me, in front of a group of masters of wine, was: 'Until Rudy is found guilty in court of law, his wine is fine for me.'"

Curtis, who now works as a fine-wine consultant, writes in an email: "It is my view now, as it always has been, that all of the wine that my team and I sold at Christie's while I was head of department was very thoroughly vetted. In my view, the essence of expertise is being able to tell good stock from bad, and I feel that my team and I were successful in this regard."

Downey feels otherwise. "We as a wine industry owe it to each other and we owe it to our consumers to do better," Downey says. "It hurts my soul Christie's allowed that to happen."

Kurniawan brought things into focus.

Kurniawan's wines had publicly been called into question as early as April 25, 2008, when Laurent Ponsot, the proprietor of French winemaker Domaine Ponsot, made a surprise visit to an auction hosted by Acker Merrall & Condit in New York to stop the sale of the fake Domaine Ponsot wines.

Even after the Ponsot incident, Christie's put Kurniawan's wines up for sale at a September 12, 2009, auction. The department was then run by Mr. Curtis, who in press releases glowed about the offerings, which included some wines associated with Kurniawan. Geoffrey Troy, who runs the New York Wine Warehouse and used to have a retail partnership with Christie's to auction off wines in New York state, said that he brought specific concerns about these wines to Christie's. Troy says that it was apparent the bottles were fakes because one bottle of 1959 Romanee Conti had an accent over the "e" in proprietaire, which bottles did not have at the time.

"Christie's insisted on selling a chunk of wine that came from Rudy, and I felt that there were a lot more questions being asked than what were being answered," says Troy. "Christie's decided that they would go forward with the auction, and they did. So today we're no longer partners."

Since Per Holmberg became head of the New York wine department in 2012, experts report another incident when they brought information to Christie's that may have prompted the auction house to pull the bottle from the market. Leading up to the May 30 and 31, 2013, auction of a magnum of 1962 Domaine de la Romanee Conti La Tache, Don Cornwell, an attorney and blogger associated with the website, posted an eight-point list and photographs illustrating why he believed the magnum was fake. Cornwell says Holmberg told Troy that the Domaine had reviewed photographs of the magnum and said it was authentic. But Cornwell says Aubert de Villaine, co-owner of Domaine de la Romanee Conti, told him that he had never heard from Christie's and he had received a photograph of the label from Wine Spectator writer Peter Hellman. Christie's ultimately pulled the magnum from the auction.

In an email, De Villaine did not directly respond to a question about whether Christie's contacted it about this specific magnum. De Villaine writes: "We have had many contacts with Christie's over the years regarding magnums or bottles of La Tache 1962. In case of doubts they have always withdrawn the bottles from the sale."