June 22, 2009 / 10:39 PM / 10 years ago

Asians snap up fine wine in soft auction market

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Asia is saving the fine wine auction market.

Asian buyers bought the three highest grossing lots at Christie’s June 6 auction in South Hampton, New York, including spending $16,900 for a 12-bottle case of 1982 Chateau Lafite-Rothschild.

And at Sotheby’s New York auction, it was an Asian collector who bought a case of 1990 Le Pin for $48,400, more than double its pre-sale estimate of $12,000 to $20,000.

Jeff Zacharia, president of Zachys auction house, viewed the wine auction market as “an early indicator that the worst is over. The prices seem to have bottomed out at the beginning of the year and now there seems to be an upward momentum.”

Zachys’ Hong Kong sale saw two cases of 1989 Chateau Haut-Brion, which had been expected to sell for no more than HK$100,000 ($12,900), go under the hammer at HK$114,950. ($14,831).

Prices, which had been off as much as 40 percent in the last half of 2008, are coming back, according to Jamie Ritchie, head of wines at Sotheby’s New York.

“They’re now down between 20 and 25 percent, so they’ve recovered a bit. And we’re seeing fierce competition in Asia,” he said.

American and British collectors were credited with running up Bordeaux prices in the years just prior to the global recession.

But the price plunge in the fine wine market coincided with the collapse of Lehman Brothers and a $750 billion bailout of U.S. banks.

“Distress sales of private collections were evident in the post-Lehman period last year, but have been less prevalent in 2009,” said Jack Hibberd, research manager for Liv-Ex, the London-based fine wine exchange.

The worldwide auction market for fine wines, a rarefied sliver of global wine sales, is estimated at roughly $300 million annually by Wine Spectator magazine.

“The market has stabilized and prices continue to creep upward,” said Paul Hart, of the Chicago’s Hart Davis Hart auction house. HDH’s June 9 auction sold all of its lots for $1.9 million, surpassing its pre-sale high estimate of $1.8 million.

“The market has shown increased stability in 2009, with a gradual rise in both prices and trading activity,” Hibberd said. “There is certainly little evidence of the sharp price falls we saw toward the back end of last year.

“Whether we have passed the bottom is more difficult to call, however,” Hibberd said. The Liv-Ex 100 Fine Wine Index as of the end of May was up 4.5 percent since the beginning of January, but down 17.2 percent from year-ago levels.

Bloomsbury Auctions in New York City, better known for its sales of books and fine art, held its first wine auction on June 19. More than 80 percent of the almost 800 lots on offer sold for a total of $1.35 million.

Bloomsbury teamed up with David Sokolin, owner of the New York wine shop that bears his name, as well as the author of the book, “Investing in Liquid Assets.

Auctions scheduled for June include Hart Davis Hart and Zachys.

Reporting by Leslie Gevirtz; Editing by Toni Reinhold.

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