Billionaire wine collector William Koch has had his attempt to file a lawsuit against auction house Christie's turned down by a federal appeals court in Manhattan, New York.
Koch wanted to take legal action over a consignment of fake Bordeaux that was represented as having belonged to the third United States president, Thomas Jefferson. Koch alleged that Christie's had conspired with German wine dealer Hardy Rodenstock to declare the wine authentic.
He bought four bottles of the wine between 1987 and 1988, paying a total of $311,804. They were said to have been unearthed by Rodenstock in a cellar in Paris and to date from 1787. The initials "Th.J." were cut into the glass.
Doubts about the wine's provenance began to circulate in 2000, but Koch waited until 2010 to file a lawsuit alleging that the "Jefferson" wines were in fact counterfeit and that Christie's "knew or was reckless in not knowing of the wines' dubious authenticity."
The Second Circuit Court of Appeals said that because of the long gap, Koch had missed the deadline to file his conspiracy complaint against the auction house. Upholding an earlier District Court decision, Judge John G. Koetl wrote: "For wine, timing is critical. The same is true for causes of action."
Thomas Jefferson served as the United States' minister to France in the late 1700s prior to becoming president. The court ruling observed that his "zeal for wine is well-documented in the historical record."
Koch's case was that when Christie's was preparing the "Th.J." wines for sale, it contacted the Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello for help in affirming their authenticity. Despite the foundation first reserving judgment and then concluding that "no solid connecting evidence could be found" between Jefferson and the wines, they were released for sale.
As debate over the authenticity of the wines gathered pace, Koch sent samples of the "Th.J." wine to the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts for radiocarbon age testing, to see if he had been "hoaxed." The court said "the results appeared to indicate that there was only a 4.6 percent probability that the wine was from the period between 1740 and 1800." Woods Hole estimated its radiocarbon age as 90 years, with a standard deviation of 35 years. However, Koch took no action at that point.
In 2005, the court was told, his staff contacted Monticello "to confirm the provenance of the Th.J. wine." After discovering that there were "credible and serious questions" about its authenticity, Koch launched an investigation. By 2009, he had "allegedly tracked down German engravers who claimed to have engraved the bottle with the 'Th.J.' initials."
Koch, 68, who resides in Florida, is listed by Forbes.com as the 134th-richest man in America. He made his $3 billion fortune from oil and gas. In 1992, his yacht, America, won the America's Cup. This year, he is backing Republican candidate Governor Mitt Romney in the race for the White House with a $2 million donation to a political action committee set up to support Romney.
The controversy surrounding the "Th.J." wines led to the publication of a 2009 book by Benjamin Wallace called "The Billionaire's Vinegar: The Mystery of the World's Most Expensive Bottle of Wine."