Doubts have been cast over the authenticity of three lots sold at Christie’s Henry Tang auction in Hong Kong at the weekend. In response, Christie's has insisted that it takes "all appropriate steps" to ensure that it does not sell inauthentic or counterfeit wines.
Ahead of the auction, Los Angeles-based attorney Don Cornwell last week sent emails to David Elswood, international head of wine at Christie’s, and the FBI, expressing his suspicions. He then posted copies of his emails online at the Wine Berserkers forum, setting out why he believed certain wines might not be above board.
Christie's confirmed today that one of the queried lots, a methusaleh of 1971 DRC La Tâche (lot 189), had been withdrawn from the sale.
The auction house refused a telephone interview, but in an emailed statement told Wine-Searcher: "The information we have at this time supports the authenticity of these three lots, and withdrawal of lot 189 was a precautionary measure whilst we clarified and confirmed the position."
It was Cornwell's investigations into alleged counterfeiting by Rudy Kurniawan that contributed to Kurniawan's arrest by the FBI and his subsequent trial, which is due to begin at an NYC court next month.
The first consignment at the Hong Kong auction that Cornwell identified to Christie's as being doubtful was a three-bottle lot of 1959 Romanée-Conti (lot 165).
“Lot 165 has four-digit bottle numbers instead of five,” notes Cornwell. “Except for bottles that have come from Rudy Kurniawan, every bottle of 1959 DRC that I have ever seen, including some Échézeaux and Grands Échézeaux I owned myself, bore five-digit numbers.”
Cornwell alleges that “the overwhelming majority of bottles of 1959 Romanée Conti that Christie’s has sold in the last five years came directly from Rudy Kurniawan.” He gives details of the dates and locations of these sales.
Cornwell claims there are issues with the labels and wax on the Hong Kong auction bottles he has queried, which he describes as “not remotely believable.” He adds that they appear new with no signs of dirt or wear. (Wine-Searcher requested an explanation for the pristine nature of the bottles but did not receive an answer from Christie's.)
In a further email to the auction house, Cornwell called for two additional lots to be withdrawn: the methusaleh of 1971 DRC La Tâche that was removed from the sale, and a 12-bottle case of 1978 DRC Montrachet (Lot 256).
The case of Montrachet was not withdrawn and was sold to a private Asian buyer for 847,000 Hong Kong dollars ($109,607) – well above the pre-sale high estimate of 600,000 Hong Kong dollars.
Cornwell set out a detailed explanation of why he believed the wines could be counterfeits, mainly quoting inconsistencies on labels.
Christie's responded to Wine-Searcher's queries by defending the authenticity of the wines.
"As a matter of policy Christie's will not sell any lot that we know or have reason to believe is inauthentic or counterfeit," the auction house said. "We take all appropriate steps to establish authenticity, and work with the leading experts, authorities and wine producers to research the property we sell."
However, Christie's did not reveal where Tang had sourced the wines for his cellar.
Cornwell has warned auction houses on previous occasions about questionable consignments, including those put up for sale by Kurniawan, and has also gone public with his suspicions.