Have you ever considered taking up the phone and making a call across the Atlantic to London to buy your wine? Many wine lovers have been doing just just that over the last few years. It is true that many who make such a call are wine trade members, but quite an appreciable number are laymen who just happen to know a little about wine and like it. The calls are for the purpose of leaving a bid for some item, or lot, in a forthcoming wine auction sale.
Such auctions have only been known in their present form for about a decade.It was in 1966 that Christie's, the best-known firm, revived its wine auctions after a lapse of a quarter of a century. In that year it absorbed the firm of Restell's which had in the past served the English wine trade with monthly auctions.
These were attended by a sprinkle of private individuals although they were essentially trade affairs. Wine merchants offered or bought bankrupt stocks, surplus wine came in from merchants who had over-bought or had made expensive mistakes. Vintages which had proved disappointing or unpopular were offered, as were stocks from firms needing to realize capital.
There had also been changing social conditions between and after the two world wars, which led a number of old town or country properties to be sold with all their contents of furniture, silver, pictures and wine cellars. In the 1960s, in the flight from money into goods, they were seized on, and old wines began to assume importance and monetary value.
It was in this situation that Christie's inaugurated its specialized wine auctions under the direction of the dynamic Michael Broadbent. The figures of sales have leapt from about $250,000 that first year to half-a-million in 1969 and $2 million in 1963/4. In 1976, they reached the $2.5 million mark.
Christie's brought wine auctions to the West End of London, traditional center of the fine-art sales in which they had specialized for centuries. In a sense they were lifting wine into a fine-art category. In 1969, Sotheby's followed suit. Although there are other wine auctioneers such as Phillips, Son and Neale, and Bonham's, the two firms of Christie's and Sotheby's have dominated the scene - with Christie's well in the lead - and kept London as world center for wine dealing.
The London wine auctions reflect the ups and downs of world wine prices with a fair degree of sensitivity. When Christie's started its sales, wine prices already had been soaring (one can trace the movement back to the 1959 Bordeaux vintage largely), and by 1966 the speculators were busy. Did wine auctions fan the flames as many people think (and auctioneers vehemently disclaim) or were the auctions themselves the result of that new trend, the scramble to invest in wine as in everything else that might appreciate in value?
Now equilibrium has been established. Prices soared unrealistically and then dropped unrealistically. They now have evened out. Prices are not low but they are realistic. And is inflation continues, they are not likely to go lower.
So the wine auctions have come into their own again, based on sensible values. They keep wine in circulation; offer a continuous criterion of its changing values by the publicity they provide and generate. They bring the wines to the bidder, and help the seller to find his best customer.
Where do all the wines come from, apart from the new vintage each year? Few heirs now inherit a cellar of fine wines. Wines still do come from those stored treasures of the English past but are more likely to come from distressed wine merchants or from abroad.
The English do buy at the London auctions: Mostly nowadays the bids are from those who have the money and some knowledge and wish to buy for present enjoying, not necessarily for cellaring. If however there is a good vintage, such as the 1976 promises to be, they will buy it young, and indeed are already making advance purchases. By the time it is ready, prices will certainly have risen, and although it ties up money for those years in which the wine will mature, there are still those who prefer not to count this cost.
American bids also constitute an important part of the London action. For example at the recent large sales of Cordier and Calvet, totalling $1.3 million, over 15 per cent of the buyers were from the States, 80 per cent of these being trade and the rest private buyers. But Christie's Broadbent has brought his auction techniques to the States from time to time. Witness the very successful and much publicized annual Heblein sale. The annual Sakowitz sale in Houston gets a good deal of publicity and its sales figures must be pleasant for the organizers.
The London auctioneers are geared to dealing with overseas buyers. They have a tradition for honorable dealing, and prize their reputation. An overseas buyers, trade or private, can ask for catalogs to be sent regularly and should study these carefully as well as the prices reached, of which he will receive a list in due course. If he then wishes to place a bid for some items he wants in a forthcoming sale, he can write or telephone a bid (i.e. the maximum figure which he will pay - with the hope that the lot can be bought in at a lower figure).
Small quantities are relatively costly. Bidders should try and share with other wine-minded friends a larger order of 20, 30, 40 cases even: It will mean a much more favorable price for each member of the group. Many private buyers individually or in a group accumulate a consignment over a number of sales and save in this way.
U.S. buyers should not attempt to get "bargains" in the shape of less expensive wines: By the time the high freight charges have been met, the handling charges, the customs' due etc., even the cheapest wine will be costly. The same charges and costs on a rare and fine wine however will not be disproportionate, and here one can hope for the true bargain in the best sense.
Of course one of the disadvantages of sending a bid by mail or telephone is that one cannot attend the pre-sale tasting. But one can ask the advice of the auctioneer or an objective wineman. The auctioneer will suggest someone if you ask for this service. The cost is little and it does give a valuable on-the-spot opinion, well worth it where it is a question of fine and expensive wines.
Nowadays probably the best values to be found are in German wines and some Burgundies. Young Sauternes are still below what they should be, but the older vintages have been increasing in price.
Americans are at the moment very interested in the sale of older vintages of clarets, Burgundies and vintage ports, for they know that stocks, which are necessarily limited and irreplaceable, will run out. Furthermore with the present strength of the dollar against the English, French and other European currencies, they are in a very advantageous position.
For catalogs write to Michael Broadbent, Christie, Manson & Woods Ltd., 8 King Street, St. James's, London, SW.1Y 6QT. Telephone: 01-839-9060. Telex: 916429. Telegrams: Christiart, London, SW.1. Or to: Pat Grubb, Sotheby Parke Bernet & Co., 36 Dover Street, London, W IX 3RB Telephone: 01-499-4551. Telex: 24454. Telegrams: Abinitio London, W.1.