A 1787 Lafite fetched £105,000 because it belonged to a great US President. Now some owners of rare bottles fear they are victims of a hoax
Nine days before Christmas on a cold New York afternoon in 1988, a well-dressed Englishman arrived at a luxurious Fifth Avenue apartment with what looked like a normal suitcase
Lindsay Hamilton, a wine dealer who runs Farr Vintners, Britain's premier trader in rare and antique wines, was carrying three of the most expensive bottles of wine ever to be sold, each one worth more than £100,000.
Last week the US Justice Department, working with the FBI, announced that the bottles were at the centre of an investigation into the international global trade in vintage wine after allegations of fraud. The inquiry is also focusing on the role played by Christie's auction house in London.
In particular, the investigation will examine Christie's relationship with a controversial German wine merchant, Harry Rodenstock, a former pop promoter who has a reputation for unearthing rare vintage wines that sell for huge sums. Rodenstock had a close relationship with a director of Christie's who was present at many of his exclusive vintage wine tastings.
In December 1985, Christie's sold one of Rodenstock's wine to the American billionaire Malcolm Forbes for the world record price of £105,000.
Rodenstock claimed that the bottle, a 1787 Lafite, belonged to Thomas Jefferson, the third President of the US. Rodenstock said that the bottle, which had the initials 'Th.J' engraved on it, had been discovered in a cellar in Paris. Despite never revealing the location of the cellar or from whom he had bought the bottle, Christie's supported Rodenstock's claim in the auction catalogue.
When Hamilton turned up in New York three years after Forbes's purchase, the three bottles he was delivering were allegedly from the same Parisian cellar found by Rodenstock and had also belonged to Jefferson. It was this that persuaded William Koch, an American tycoon who is the president of the Oxbow Corporation, a global mining and energy business, to stump up close to $500,000 for the wine.
Until now, the world of rare wines has been a secretive one in which wealthy individuals pay tens of thousands of pounds for a single bottle. It is a market that is being fuelled by bumper City bonuses and the growing band of new millionaires from eastern Europe and the Far East. Mostly the bottles stay locked in dark cellars and are rarely seen again.
Such would have been the fate of the wine Koch had acquired, but in 2005 Boston's Museum of Fine Arts was mounting a display of his private collection, which included paintings by Monet and Degas. Before exhibiting his Jefferson wine collection, the museum wanted proof of its authenticity.
A call by Koch's team to the Jefferson Memorial Foundation in Virginia raised questions about the wine's provenance. Jefferson kept meticulous records of all the wines he ordered, and there was no record of the bottles Rodenstock claimed he had discovered.
Believing he had been duped, Koch hired a team that included the ex-Scotland Yard detective inspector Richard Marston and the former head of wine at Sotheby's, David Molyneux-Berry. Koch even recruited a former MI5 agent and a nuclear physicist who examined the molecular content of the glass. Koch's team believes the engraving on the bottle was fake, made with a modern high-speed diamond drill.
His lawsuit against Rodenstock states: '[Our] investigation has proven that Rodenstock's most celebrated wine "discovery" ... is a hoax.'
An affidavit signed by Marston, the former Scotland Yard detective, claims that he interviewed a British-based collector who had also bought a Jefferson bottle through Christie's. Marston states that the buyer was told that the wine had been stolen by the Nazis when they occupied Paris and that the story about the wines being found in a French cellar was to avoid the consequences of selling 'looted Nazi art'. It is unclear who had given the buyer this explanation.
In a fax to Koch last May, Rodenstock contended that the bottles were 'absolutely genuine'. He said he had bought the Jefferson wines from a man 'who at the time was about 65 years old. I don't even know if the seller ... is still alive today'. Koch's team claims that, with such doubt over the provenance of the wine, Christie's was wrong to vouch for them without further research.
Molyneux-Berry told The Observer: 'You would have thought that, with bottles of this importance and without knowing the source, Christie's would have done more research. At least they should have made a call to the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation to get some verification.'
Birgit Kurtz, the New York lawyer acting for Rodenstock, said her client would not comment on 'pending litigation'. A spokesman for Christie's said: 'Christie's can confirm that the subpoena which was received by Christie's in December was focused on the activities of a particular client, and did not focus on the activities ... of Christie's itself. We have been co-operating with federal officials in their investigation on the matter and will continue to do so. As a matter of policy, Christie's will not sell any lot that we know or have reason to believe is inauthentic or counterfeit.'
Hamilton refused to comment. A spokesman for his company, Farr Vintners, said: 'Farr is a highly regarded and long established company which takes every reasonable precaution in relation to the wine it buys and sells.'