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Auction Fever

Auction Fever

Until recently, one of the holes in my wine experience was attending a wine auction.  Sure, I’ve browsed through the glossy catalogs and helped clients sell their collections through both high-end and internet auctions.  But actually attending and bidding?  Somehow, I simply never got around to it.


So when Ursula Hermacinski invited me to the Zachy’s Early Fall Auction, it was just the kick I needed.


The first thing I did was turn to her book, The Wine Lover’s Guide to Auctions, for guidance.  She gives a corking (forgive me) history of wine auctions, offers an introduction to wine, and includes chapters on selling a wine collection as well as on expanding one.


My focus, however, was on part two, The Art of Bidding.  The first of these chapters guides the reader through understanding the catalog. (Quick, what’s ullage? The level of wine in each bottle – generally lower the older the wine.)


The next chapter is filled with tips for preparing for the auction, including how to review and mark the catalog, figuring out the surcharges – auction houses often charge a buyer’s fee as well as tax, significantly upping the buyer’s final tab – and the various bidding options, including phone and absentee bidding.


There is also a chapter on “Auction Day” that covers everything from what to wear (pretty much anything goes, but don’t be sloppy) to where to sit (within the auctioneer’s plain view) to bidding strategies (early-action or late-entry).


Feeling thoroughly informed, I set a budget and began browsing the catalog.  Based on the book’s estimate of 150-200 lots an hour, and knowing that I would arrive about an hour into the auction and stay for 3-4 hours, I guesstimated the lots that would be offered during that time and started highlighting.


The next morning, I headed into Manhattan.  Many high-end auctions are held at equally high-end restaurants, and today’s destination was Boulud Sud.


Walking into the elegant room, the atmosphere was more sedate than I expected.


The event had been in full swing for a little more than an hour and there were about 17 bidders in the room.  It was quiet but intense, people hunched over their marked catalogs and notes.  Most people had a laptop or something else electronic in front of them.


The auctioneer had a steady patter and calm voice, the opposite of trope of fast-paced, barely comprehensible patter from the podium. (Ignore, too, the other cinematic cliché of accidentally bidding while doing something silly like swatting at a gnat. Not gonna happen.)


Bids started below the estimate (say, $700 on a $1,000-$1,200 range) and competition for the wine – this section was mostly French – was anything but fierce.


So color me a bit surprised as the action picked up when a large group of Italian wines came up for bid.


Forget starting below the estimate.  Thanks to internet, phone and absentee bids, the opening salvo was often mid-estimate or higher.  Competition in the room became more intense, too.

The lots moved quickly – no dust left on those bottles!


One of the things I learned from reading The Wine Lover’s Guide to Auctions is that the auction director organizes the catalog (and thus auction) to generate periods of excitement and increase competition.  Since many people perceive that French wines are the most popular, I asked Ursula if the enthusiasm for Italian was an anomaly or planned.


“The most successful lots,” she replied, “are those that bidders need to compete for because they are rarely available in any other venue. The French wines come up with enough regularity…that there is no need to compete with any gusto, because if you miss out on a wine that comes up all the time, you’ll have a chance to bid on it again at the next sale.”


It was fortunate that I came into the auction during a slow time – lot 180 was up when I arrived, and the first lot I intended to bid on was 251.  This gave me time to look around and acclimate myself to the process.


Surprisingly, my heart started beating faster when the auctioneer called lot 250.  It meant there was about 30 seconds before I could bid. I gripped my paddle as bidding opened for lot 251, 6 bottles of 1999 Chateau Palmer, estimated at $850 to $1,300.  My budget was a modest $1,000.


Opening bid – $1,100.


Never mind.  At least I could breathe again.


I was also outbid during my next attempt.  (Wouldn’t you know, an Italian wine!)


As time passed, the room started filling up – no surprise, given the approaching lunch hour.  (Attending the auction is free; a buffet lunch was offered for a price.)


Servers wafted about offering glasses of rosé Champagne, and several people who brought their own treasures had them opened.  As bidding allowed (i.e., a gap between desired lots), people got up to help themselves from the food-laden tables.


The event reminded me of author John Arnold’s description of war: “Long periods of boredom punctuated by short moments of excitement.”


In fact, if you weren’t paying attention, things could happen quite quickly.  During the 60 seconds it took to send a text, I missed the action on two very high-end lots that a buyer snapped up for a total of $46,000.


That’s one of the things about these auctions:  it’s expensive.  There were a total of 1,800 lots up for bid ranging in price from the mid-three figures to the mid-five figures.  Ursula estimates that fewer than 10% of the lots sold were under $1,000, with the average lot selling for $2,500 to $3,500.


That winning feeling!

When all was said and done, I bid – and won – a lot I hadn’t even marked.  That’s potentially a rookie mistake.  If you haven’t done your research, it’s possible to overpay or buy something that’s not worth the bucks.  I looked it up after the fact, and most recent reviews on Cellar Tracker were positive, and, price-wise, it was a value based on current retail.


As for the auction team at Zachy’s, they sold 98% of the lots for a total of $5,235,508, against an estimate of $3,972,150 to $6,073,800.  That’s a personal best, Ursula told me: the largest two-day sale in the company’s ten-year auction history.


It was a win-win for everyone – and a great way to wrap up the auction experience.


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