Recently our founder Philip James, Curator Katy Andersen and I decided to play our hands at the unpredictable auction market for a specially chosen Christie’s sale. The cellar of the famed Wild Boar restaurant was up on the block.
Having worked at Christie’s as a Wine Specialist, I know that restaurant cellars offer a chance for bargains. Typically wine sellers are professional collectors who buy and sell in full case quantities to preserve the value. Restaurant cellars or drinking cellars contain odds and ends that are less valuable to a collector but ideal for the drinker.
Here are a few more tips if you’d like to try your hand.
1) Show up at the start (and stay until the end)
Christie’s Saturday auctions are an event with old bottles open for tasting for those who arrive in time, Champagne and small bites. While bidding I tasted through ’79 La Mission Haut Brion, ’82 Brane Cantenac, ’77 Joseph Phelps Backus Vineyard and more.
After a while the sale might become a bit monotonous. Traditional auction houses like Sotheby’s and Christie’s have other items on view during the sale so you can wander around 20th Century American Paintings or a jewel collection.
Don’t forget to go back to the room, though. As the day goes on and successful bidders leave happy, the end of the sale almost certainly promises the best bargains when no one is watching.
2) Provenance Matters
Ask the auction house about the history of the collection. The best collections have been owned for a long time by a single owner, stored professionally and purchased on release from the winery or other reputable sources. If bidding on lower priced lots, you don’t need to worry about fakes but the storage conditions are critical. Cheaper wine is typically less sturdy since the wine wasn’t meant for long-term cellaring.
A hint of the conditions can be seen in the ullage or amount of air in the bottle below the cork and above the wine. Lower levels like 5cm+ or mid-shoulder show that the bottle was exposed to heat, stored in dry conditions or is just too old and continually oxidizing at a high rate. The back of a catalog will show you how the specialists score conditions.
3) Prepare in advance
Wine auctions move very fast so you need to know what you want and what you're setting as your limit. The estimates listed are based on recent history, and depending on the sale, the reserves are placed at a percentage of the low estimate. Some sales with lots of odds and ends or a restaurant closing may have low or even no reserves listed, so deals will abound.
Want the sensible way to participate? Send in your bids before the sale, place a total limit and don’t attend in person. The first bids to be sent in are “protected,” meaning if multiple people want to bid $250 for a lot, then the first one in gets that price so long as no higher bids are placed.
But what is the fun in that, you ask? I agree. But be careful in the room, for as the old saying goes, “A good auctioneer pick-pockets you with his tongue.” The bid is against you now; will you take another one Madam?
4) Making the bid
You can bid by raising your paddle or your hand, and eventually once you’ve caught the auctioneer’s eye, with a nod. If you are successful, he will ask for your paddle number. Remember that the hammer price you’ve just agreed to will get grossed up to include the buyer’s premium of 20 percent+, taxes and transportation of the wine. And don’t forget to continue good cellaring practices by leaving the wine in storage if you don’t plan to consume it all right away.