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Sunday, June 16, 2024 | Back issues
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Wine Collector Hands Christie’s a $5M Tab

(CN) - Christie's botched the auction of a world-class collection of rare wines containing Grand Crus of "impeccable provenance," and cost the collector $5 million, a Norwegian businessman claims in Los Angeles Federal Court. Christen Sveaas says the auction in Los Angeles was a "severe failure," and that many of the wines failed to sell or sold well below market value.

Sveaas cites a 1997 auction of his wines at Christie's in London, which fetched $11.2 million - "the highest auction result for any wine sale in Europe up to that time," according to the complaint.

Sveaas says Los Angeles was not the best site for the 2007 auction, but Christie's pushed it as an excuse to promote its new auction house there. He claims that Christie's failed to promote the sale properly, did not send the auction catalog to customers in time, and twice delayed the auction unnecessarily, holding it at the "tail end of an overcrowded auction season" just 10 days before an auction in Geneva.

He adds: "Scheduling the auction early in the 2007 fall auction season was crucial to its success because Christie's was planning another Grand Crus auction in Geneva on November 13 and 14, 2007, which Christie's believed would 'take some of the money out of the marketplace especially from European and Asian buyers' - the category of buyers who would be most interested in purchasing the very rare wines and vintages which Christie's approved for Sveaas' auction."

Sveaas' lots included a dozen bottles of "the legendary Chateau Mouton-Rothschild 1945, considered one of the greatest wines and vintages of the 20th century," and cases of the 1999 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Richebourg, "one of the most sought-after wines in the world from one of the world's finest vineyards."

The dozen bottles of Mouton-Rothschild sold for $100,000, though a dozen of the same bottles sold for $170,000 at Christie's in New York three days earlier; the Romanée-Conti Richebourg sold for $1,250 a bottle, yet fetched $8,867 a bottle at an auction that Sotheby's London held three days after the auction in Los Angeles, Sveaas says.

"Christie's never informed Sveaas that it believed that the prevailing attitude in the United States was unfavorable to rarer vintages of wine due to press coverage and speculation concerning the authenticity of such wines," according to the complaint.

Christie's suffered damage to its reputation when it became embroiled in a counterfeit wine scandal in the 1980s. The auction house had sold a cache of bottles that Thomas Jefferson supposedly engraved in the 18th century, but many experts believe those bottles, and others, were forged.

Sveaas says Christie's also botched the charity lot he included for the Elton John AIDS Foundation. The lot, worth at least $150,000, included a photograph and dinner, but it sold for just $9,000, he says.

Christie's acknowledged in a letter "that the embarrassing results were due to Christie's breach of its obligations in its placement of the auction at the end of a crowded auction schedule, failure to secure interest in the rarer vintages of wine despite their unquestionable provenance, and slow, poor or simply nonexistent service," according to the complaint.

Sveaas seeks $5 million in damages, alleging breach of fiduciary duty and bad faith. He is represented by Robert Zapf with Duane Morris.

The complaint came just after another collector, William Koch, filed an 81-page complaint against Christie's in Manhattan Federal Court, citing a list of witnesses he claims to have in the alleged Thomas Jefferson forgery.

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