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Thursday, June 20, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Unlike the Wine, Koch’s Claim Worsened With Age

MANHATTAN (CN) - Christie's nixed a federal lawsuit by billionaire William Koch, who accused the famed auction house of a racketeering conspiracy to sell forged bottles of rare wine supposedly once owned by Thomas Jefferson.

In 1988, Koch bought four bottles engraved with the initials "Th.J." for $311,800 directly from Hardy Rodenstock, a German wine connoisseur who claimed to have discovered a cache of Jefferson's wine in bricked-up Paris cellar.

Though Christie's was not involved in the direct sale of those bottles, Koch said that the auction house engaged in a "decades-long scam of promoting, authenticating, and selling supposedly rare wines that it knew to be counterfeit."

Koch alleged in a March 2010 complaint that Christie's had "acquired direct and specific knowledge of facts and circumstances that challenged the authenticity of the Th.J wine" as early as 1985. To support these claims, Koch bought a bottle of 1870 Lafite at Christie's for $4,200 in 2008, and had his experts confirm that the wine was counterfeit.

But the time Koch spent amassing this evidence ultimately ensured his defeat. A federal judge dismissed the complaint against Christie's this month, finding that Koch had far exceeded the four-year statute of limitations for civil claims under anti-racketeering law.

The 29-page order says Koch ignored signs that the 1870 Lafite was a fake in order to gather evidence for his lawsuit. In the meantime, he allowed the statute of limitations over the four other bottles to expire.

"Plaintiff's undisputed knowledge and conduct demonstrates that he harbored suspicions regarding the wine as early as 1993," U.S. District Judge Barbara Jones wrote on March 18. "In 2000, he took the affirmative step of having the wine tested. He has not alleged any facts which would permit this court to plausibly conclude that Christie's public statements or attempts to convince experts of the authenticity of the Th.J wine prevented his own investigation into the wine or into Christie's role in the allegedly fraudulent sales. Rather, Plaintiff himself alleges that his post-2005 investigation resulted in 'overwhelming evidence' that the markings on the Th.J wine were not authentic."

She added that Koch ignored press reports expressing skepticism about the wine's connection to the Founding Father. One of the articles cited in the decision is the New York Times' "Oldest Bordeaux? Yes; Jefferson's? Maybe," published on Oct. 30, 1985.

Buying the 1870 Lafite from Christie's in 2008 does not allow Koch to sidestep the statute of limitations, the judge ruled, noting that Koch admitted to harboring suspicions about the wine's provenance before the sale.

"While it is true that Christie's' statements may have been materially misleading to the average reasonable consumer, Plaintiff has admitted that he was not misled," Jones wrote.

"Here, the cause of [Koch's] injuries was not Christie's' misleading statements, but Plaintiff's desire to gather evidence against Christie's," she added.

By choosing to purchase a $4,700 bottle that he knew was worth "far less," Koch became an "investigator" rather than a "consumer," the decision states.

Koch is also involved in a string of other lawsuits related to his purchase of the four bottles from Rodenstock, whom he claims is actually a prolific wine counterfeiter named Michael Goerke. He claims there is no proof that Thomas Jefferson ever engraved any of his wine bottles, and that the third U.S. president often used a colon instead of a period to abbreviate his name, as "Th:J".

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