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Collector Amasses Witnesses in Wine Case

MANHATTAN (CN) - Ten confidential witnesses are ready to testify that Christie's auction house ignored signs of forgery to sell counterfeit bottles of wine for millions of dollars, according to the latest filing from billionaire William Koch. Koch says he spent $311,800 on four bottles of wine that Christie's authenticated as having been owned by Thomas Jefferson.

The federal complaint is the latest in a string of lawsuits from Koch, who also has a pending 2006 lawsuit against Hardy Rodenstock.

Rodenstock claimed to have discovered a hidden cache of wine bearing the initials "Th.J." in a bricked-up wine cellar in Paris in the 1980s, according to the complaint.

Koch claims his 10 confidential witnesses include former Christie's employees and glass engravers and polishers who say they were living in the same small German town as Rodenstock in the 1980s.

Since the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation at Monticello was skeptical about the provenance of the wine bottles, Koch says Christie's used its employees to back up Rodenstock's claims.

A 44-year employee who was head of the glass and ceramics department at Christie's in London says he was tapped to authenticate what the catalog dubbed a "1787 Th.J. Lafitte." The so-called expert authenticated the bottle though he had no training in glass engraving or tool mark identification, according to the complaint.

Christie's claimed that the bottle was of the correct date and the lettering and the wheel engraving were "absolutely right for the period." Koch says the Lafite sold for a record $156,000 to Christopher Forbes in 1985.

(Chateau Lafitte is also spelled as Lafite in Koch's 81-page complaint, which includes 268 pages of attachments, including depositions.)

A 20-year employee of the British Library who is a handwriting and forgery expert says the former longtime head of Christie's wine department, J. Michael Broadbent, never asked him to help authenticate the lettering in the 1980s. The expert did not examine the bottle until 2006, according to Koch's complaint.

Koch says Broadbent turned a blind eye to evidence that Rodenstock's real name was Michael Goerke, and that he was a prolific wine counterfeiter.

"Broadbent used his unique stature in the wine world and his widely published tasting notes to legitimize the authenticity of Rodenstock's wines and to attract potential purchasers and increase Christie's sales," according to the complaint.

Koch says auction houses have long had the technology to eliminate most of the counterfeit wine from the market, but they have incentives not to screen for counterfeit wine.

"With seller's commissions and buyer's premiums, the auction house keeps for itself approximately 25 percent of all sales at every wine auction," according to the complaint.

Koch says that claiming to have rare wine at an auction helps to drive sales for all wine offered at the auction, and to attract customers for coming auctions.

In preparing an exhibit for a Boston museum, Koch says he discovered the Monticello claims against his Th.J. bottles. The Monticello report found that every bottle was engraved with an electric drill more similar to a modern-day dentist's tool than to an 18th century tool, according to the complaint.

Three glass engravers and polishers who were living in a small German town with Rodenstock in the 1980s say they were hired to engrave old decanters with the coat of arms for several chateaus, according to the complaint.

Koch says there is no proof that Thomas Jefferson ever engraved any of his wine bottles, and that he often used a colon instead of a period to abbreviate his name, as "Th:J".

Koch seeks an injunction and treble damages, alleging RICO violations, conspiracy and fraud. He is represented by Elkan Abramowitz with Morvillo, Abramowitz, Grand, Iason, Anello & Bohrer.

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