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BEAUNE, France (Reuters) - Celebrities, business people and the wealthy bid for casks of fine wine in the world's biggest annual charity auction at the Hospices de Beaune this weekend in an annual ritual for Burgundy winemakers that stretches back more than one-and-a-half centuries.
The total value of the sale, at 5.8 million euros ($7.8 mln), broke the 2009 record of 5.5 million on face value and was more than the 5.1 million euros of 2010.
There were, however, more lots for sale and average prices were down on last year by 6.2 percent for reds and 12.9 percent for the whites as the financial crisis and economic worries hurt even the steadiest asset values in the global wine trade.
The main item, the special President's lot of 460 liters of red Corton Clos du Roi, Cuvee Baronne du Bay, was auctioned by actor Christian Clavier and fashion model and designer Ines de la Fressange. It raised 110,000 euro for two charities and the buyer was Stephen Williams of the Antique Wine Company.
"This year's auction takes place in a difficult financial and economic context," said Alain Suguenot, chairman of the hospices and mayor of Beaune.
The second-highest buy was a 228-liter barrel of white Batard-Montrachet Grand Cru Cuvee Dames de Flandres at 56,710 euros by an anonymous 'Asian amateur' according to auctioneers Christie's.
Prospective buyers were given tastings and dinners by top wine merchants such as Albert Bichot while three-star Michelin chef Michel Troisgros of Roanne made some signature dishes.
The sale was of the most recent vintage, that of 2011, and the wines need to be 'tended' for up to 24 months in Beaune and then stored for several more years before they can be drunk. After a freak climate in 2011, the harvest started early on August 29 and lasted 10 days.
"This vintage is the best of the century," said Claude Chevallier, president of the Burgundy vintners association.
Roland Masse, the head wine-maker for the Hospices, said that while the seasons had been 'disruptive' in 2011, the harvest took place in clement weather, despite occasional rain, and pronounced this year's vintage "sunny and luminous."
The Hospices de Beaune was founded as a hospital for the poor and needy in the 15th century as France was emerging from the 100 year's War with England.
Although the medieval building with its multi-colored roof tiles still stands. There is now a modern hospital in Beaune.
The original hospital was financed by charitable contributions from wealthy Burgundians and over the centuries landowners have transferred vineyards to the hospital as a source of revenue.
The first such transfer was in 1457, by Guilemette Leverrier. Recent transfers were in April 2010 by Boston wine importer William D. Friedberg and in 1979 by the married couple Raymond Cyrot and Suzanne Chaudron who owned vineyards in Pommard and Beaune.
Built as a "Palace for the Poor" the hospital was constructed by local master artisans, Jean Rateau and Guillaume La Rathe and included a panel painting by Flemish artist Rogier van der Weyden.
It was in 1850 that Joseph Petasse, the bursar of the hospital, started the sale of wines that would become the biggest charity auction in the world. The bidding is for lots of 228 liters of wine in barrels that can be transformed into 288 standard bottles.
The wines are among the best and most expensive of Burgundy, France's second-biggest wine-making area after Bordeaux.
Albert Bichot has been the biggest buyer at the Hospices for the past 15 years, acquiring barrels on behalf of clients such as the Plaza Hotel in New York or the Intercontinental in Berlin. The Bichot firm has roots going back to 1831 and family member Francois Bichot donated his wine estates in the early 19th century.
The French Alzheimer research fund and a children's cardiac surgery association will share the revenues from the President's Lot, the rest goes to the Beaune hospital which plans a major restructuring and enlargement works starting in 2012, as well as maintenance for the old Hotel Dieu hospital.
Editing by Paul Casciato