PARIS — “We don’t want your vinegar, Hollande!” yelled a young protester as he rushed past startled bidders and lunged toward the platform where the auctioneer was busy selling a treasure trove of wines from the famed cellar of the Elysee Palace.
The unprecedented sale of some 1,200 bottles of fine vintages, champagne and cognac ordered by President Francois Hollande drew the expected big international turnout of sommeliers, wine dealers and amateur enthusiasts when it opened in the entry lobby of Drouot, the Paris auction house.
Less anticipated was the need to summon France’s tough CRS riot squad to control rowdy demonstrators pressing up against the glass doors and chanting their opposition to a recently passed law allowing same-sex marriage.
The anti-gay wedlock protesters have become a feature on the Paris streets in recent months, although demonstrations against rising unemployment — especially directed at such an elitist symbol as expensive grands crus from the presidential palace — might seem more likely in a country that proudly bears its reputation for revolution.
But whatever his cause, the young man who managed to get inside was quickly seized by two security men and bundled away as the auction continued cheerfully. “We have had some liveliness for you this evening — and there may be more,” auctioneer Ghislaine Kapandji joked to her bidders, waving her hammer.
The main action subsequently was on the auction floor as a first tranche of 552 lots — representing about 10 percent of the Elysee collection — went on sale Thursday night.
The auction, the first of its kind since the Elysee cellar was founded in 1947, was sanctioned in this time of austerity to pay for a needed replenishment of the palace stocks. Virginie Routis, the Elysee’s chief sommelier, selected the wines the palace no longer had enough of to service a dinner or reception — or were too embarrassingly valuable to present to guests when all of Europe is having to tighten its belt.
“You can no longer be allowed to put on the table bottles worth 2,000 or 3,000 euros,” she told the French news agency Agence France-Presse.
In the event, plenty of wines were sold in that range Thursday evening — and no sign of prices below 100 euros, or about $129, as originally promised. The lots of mostly one or two bottles were knocked down for up to four times their estimate after lively bidding from the room, from a bank of 15 telephones and from 200 clients signed up online.
The oldest bottle on offer — a 1936 Chateau Latour estimated at 480 to 500 euros, went for 3,500 euros, or about $4,560. Even relative bargains fetched a big premium: A case of 12 bottles of 1998 Puligny Montrachet white Burgundy marked at 300 to 360 euros attracted a winning bid of 1,900 euros, or about $2,457.
Marco Reitano, chief sommelier at La Pergola, a Michelin three-star restaurant in Rome, was among the most active bidders, spending the equivalent of about $52,000. “We have a huge wine cellar,” he smiled.
He thought prices were not excessive. “They were not so far from market prices. Usually wines at auctions have traveled around a lot. These are very well preserved. They have been well looked after in the cellar of the Elysee.”
Reitano, shifting nervously in his seat, capped his evening by winning one of the two bottles of 1990 Petrus Bordeaux with a bid of 5,500 euro, or about $7,168, to a burst of applause from the room.
A few minutes later, the second Petrus, like the first on an estimate of 2,200 to 2,500 euros, went for 5,800 euros, or about $7,560, to two Chinese wine importers. Fan Dongxing, from Shanghai, said he was “very happy — it is a big honor for us.” He said he and his partner would resell their purchases to “professionals or friends” in China. Asked how much he had spent overall, he laughed, “I don’t know!”
The almost $390,000 spent by Thursday evening exceeded the $323,000 estimate for the whole sale, which continued Friday. The palace has promised to return to the state budget anything raised over the undisclosed sum needed to replenish the cellar with “more modest wines.”
Routis, who Drouot said retained in the cellar a bottle of each wine sent for auction as a historical record, declined to discuss this afterward. But she beamed when asked if she was satisfied with the evening’s sale.
“I am very happy,” she said.