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MILAN (Reuters) - Prices of the most expensive wines have plunged in recent weeks, showing that not even the swish sectors of the economy are immune to the global crisis, top experts said on Tuesday.
The so-called great or fine wines, predominantly French Bordeaux, are often considered to be safe investments because their value grows with time as quality improves, while quantity drops as it gets drunk.
"We had extraordinary high prices in September, but afterwards ... we've seen in October the descent from the absolute top," Serena Sutcliffe, head of Sotheby's International Wine Department, told Reuters at a wine event in Milan.
Top label wines saw prices fall 10 or 20 percent at auctions in New York and London in the past few weeks. But exceptional bottles which used to command four- and five-digit prices on the back of Russian and Chinese demand were hardest hit, she said.
"We see the biggest correction in the market in categories which went the most wild in price -- that's contemporary art and some very, very top Bordeaux Chateaux," Sutcliffe said.
A Sotheby's auction called "An Evening of Exceptional Wines" in New York at the end of October raised $2.2 million -- well below expected $3.2- 5.1 million. The top lot, 12 bottles of Romanee-Conti 1990, sold for $151,250, falling short of an estimated price range of $170,000-240,000.
At another auction in Chicago this month Romanee-Conti 1990 fetched $6,500 a bottle, 67.5 percent down on just over a year ago.
Sutcliffe said there were fewer bidders as people were "more preoccupied with sorting out their financial situation."
Investments in wine have fared better than financial instruments and, at times, even outperformed gold during previous stock market downturns since the start of 2001, said Gabriele Barbaresco, head of research at Italian bank Mediobanca.
"This time the situation is different. It is hard to predict what is going to happen," he said.
Mathieu Chadronnier, general manager of French elite wine distributor CVBG, said the financial crisis had taken its toll on top-label sales outside auction houses as well.
"When bankers lose their jobs, we lose clients," he said, though he could not quantify the drop in sales.
His company and four other top French wine merchants from the elite distribution system Place de Bordeaux are launching sales of upmarket Italian red Masseto, betting on its quality.
Sotheby's Sutcliffe said she believed connoisseurs would continue to buy top labels because they were still "less expensive than a Warhol, a Rothko or a Picasso."
Editing by Paul Casciato