Wine collectors often share a lament: not enough storage space for their burgeoning collections. Because careful storage of wine is essential, some owners resort to specialised offsite facilities, while others sell parts of their collection to make room.
Of course, there are other reasons collectors might sell their wine. It could simply be a matter of taste — perhaps their palate has changed, or they might want to acquire more of a particular vintage.
Wine is one of the most active departments at Christie's and our specialists are among the world’s foremost experts. As well as selling a diverse selection of wines and spirits, we maintain relationships with prominent collectors, wineries and distilleries. Specialists carefully evaluate every potential consignment to ensure its quality and excellence in sourcing and storage.
Whether a collector is looking to part with a single bottle or an entire collection, Christie's will provide an expert review of its potential for auction. Here, some of our specialists relate their most memorable selling experiences.
A woman in Wales contacted Christie's after her husband had died — there was some leftover Champagne in her cellar from her wedding more than 50 years previously, and she thought it might be worth ‘a few pounds’. When Wine specialist Noah May visited, he discovered an unopened case of 1959 Krug. The Champagne exhibited perfect levels of colour and clarity. The widow attended the auction and was delighted when the case — a symbol of her half-century union — sold for some £15,000.
As Christie's experts appraised an estate owned by the late American publisher Richard Mellon Scaife, they opened a closed door and came upon a cellar containing 51 original, unopened cases of Old Overholt Straight Rye Whiskey.
The liquor had been distilled in Pennsylvania between 1904 and 1912 and bottled as a private release for the Mellon family in the late 1930s. Its extended ageing in perfect conditions resulted in an astonishing flavour and character. The cases, which were estimated conservatively at $2,000 to $3,000 each, attracted bidders from all over the world, and eventually sold for between $14,000 and $18,000 a case.
One of Christie’s London-based clients had been an angel investor in a West End show that had failed. In repayment, he had accepted thousands of bottles of wine, most of which he assumed to be worthless.
One night, a dinner guest suggested some of the wine might be valuable. The guest was correct, since among the bottles the owner had casually been serving was the legendary 1961 vintage of Jaboulet’s Hermitage La Chapelle. Fortunately, some 30 bottles remained, and it sold at a world-record price of £120,000 per case. In all, the cellar brought in more than £750,000.
In the ancient cellars of Harewood House in Yorkshire, a number of dusty bottles of an unknown spirit were discovered hidden away on a high shelf at the back. The cellar book entry of July 1805 noted '226 bottles, dark and light 1780' of a 'cane spirit' stored in two numbered bins, which matched where the bottles were discovered.
The rum had been distilled in Barbados, shipped in a barrel to England, and bottled at Harewood. It was the oldest rum Christie's specialists had ever seen. Estimated at £600 to £800 per bottle, with its exceptional provenance, 12 bottles of the rum sold for an astounding £10,000 each — a world record.
Containing close to 400,000 bottles, one of the world’s most famous and magnificent cellars of wine and spirits is owned by La Tour d'Argent, said to be the oldest restaurant in Paris. When the restaurant’s owners decided to sell some of their historic Cognac and Armagnac, specialist Noah May visited the cellar and was struck by the fact that many of the spirits had not been moved for well over a century. The oldest bottle dated back to 1788. A selection of these bottles made extraordinary prices when offered at a subsequent Christie’s sale in London.
Why Christie's for wine consignment?
Christie’s team of leading experts offers the scholarship, experience and network of relationships to provide security to buyers, and enable our clients to maximise their sale's potential. Christie's international clientele and outstanding reputation assure the best possible audience for your product. In fact, the most venerated wineries frequently ask us to source their own older vintages.
How do I consign with Christie's?
If you're interested in selling or learning the value of a wine or spirit, just call or email the Wine Department. An expert will quickly respond and may ask for more information, such as when and where the product was purchased and if you have receipts or delivery notices. In addition, a request may be made for images of the bottles.
For larger or valuable consignments, Christie’s will arrange a visit to evaluate condition and storage. If it's a smaller collection, the wine or spirit will be inspected when it arrives in the company’s warehouse.
We like to learn about the history of your collection or product and why you're considering bringing it to market so we can best advise regarding its sale. Christie's will manage every step of the sale, including shipping, storage and precise record-keeping.
Our team of specialists evaluate collections, organise inventories, and provide valuations for individual bottles or entire cellars. We also help owners to prune their collections in order to make room for further purchases.
How strong is the market for wine at auction?
The international wine market has been consistently strong, across the globe. We have seen many interesting trends in recent years. Wine connoisseurship in Asia grew rapidly after Hong Kong abolished import duties in 2008, especially among a younger, newly wealthy clientele that regards fine wine — particularly European wine — as a new collecting category. As this new market has sought the best of the best, Christie’s has achieved record prices in its Hong Kong auctions. Today our market has evolved into one that is extremely mobile and which operates on a global level, our important clients engage in our sale sites in the US, Europe and Asia, keen as they are to acquire exceptional wines.
Which wines and spirits are most prized by collectors?
Many fine wines have enthusiastic followings, including the domaines of Coche-Dury, Ramonet and Leflaive for white Burgundy; Romanée-Conti, Henri Jayer, Georges Roumier and Georges de Vogüé for rare Burgundy; Lafite Rothschild for Bordeaux; Screaming Eagle and other cult Cabernets in California; Older Latour and Haut-Brion for Bordeaux; and Krug, Dom Perignon and Cristal Champagnes.
In the world of spirits, distilleries offer singular releases to appeal to collectors and create elaborate bottle designs, presentation boxes and special decanters. Macallan, Glenlivet and Glenfiddich are three of the most respected Scottish whisky producers. The market for American whiskey from the pre-Prohibition era is especially strong.
Which wines or vintages are currently trending?
'California wine from the 1960s and 70s is very desirable, as are traditional styles of Barolo from Italy, and old Bordeaux and Burgundy,' Noah May explains. 'People are always looking for different things and different areas. For example, wine from the northern Rhône is an undervalued category and experiencing a huge increase in interest and prices. Just five or 10 years ago it was selling for a fraction of what it is now.'
At its first auction in 1766, Christie’s sold 10 bottles of Bordeaux and Madeira. Throughout our history, wine has been an important category. Since establishing our Wine Department in 1966, we’ve recorded record-breaking results. Over the past year, international sales through live auction and online sales totalled nearly $70 million.
And of course, alongside the potential for appreciation in value, the collection of fine wines and spirits has another great benefit: you can always open a bottle, and pour yourself and your friends a glass of something very special.
This article was first published online in August 2016