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This was particularly the case in London where Sotheby’s (10% buyer’s premium) and Christie’s (10% buyer’s premium) sales of Fine and Rare Wines, held on May 23 and 24 respectively, both achieved much-as-predicted totals of a little over £400,000 with lottage unsold rates of under 20 per cent.

Buying (and selling) at these London sales tends to be dominated by the trade, which inevitably reduces the element of surprise and here the only real shock was the top price of £15,000 (estimate £5500-6900) paid by a Far Eastern buyer at Sotheby’s for a mixed case of Mouton Rothschild vintages ranging in date from 1945-1957. Top price at Christie’s was the £3800 given against an estimate of £1800-2400 for a case of Pomerol’s much admired Château L’Evangeline from the equally admired 1959 vintage.

In contrast to London, wine sales in the US tend to be dominated by private individuals – Robert Sleigh reckons that on average 80-95 per cent of lots are bought privately at
US wine auctions – and as
a result individual moments
of enthusiasm can break
the routine of within-estimate bidding.

At Aulden Cellars/Sotheby’s (15/10% buyer’s premium) May 19 sale in New York more than 20% of the lots sold above their high estimates and the final premium-inclusive total of $1.95m (£1.36m) – with only 8 per cent of lots unsold – was slightly ahead of the pre-sale upper forecast. A similar, if slightly less impressive total of $1.65m (£1.15m) was achieved with a lottage selling rate of 83 per cent at Zachy’s/Christie’s (15/10% buyer’s premium) May 4 sale of Fine and Rare Wines in New York. Both results seemed solid enough, but they were some way short of the hefty $2m-plus totals that were a routine feature of New York wine sales last year before the US economy lurched into slowdown and no lot made a hammer price of more than $20,000.

As in London, it was the more unusual, less market-worn names that created the surprises in New York, such as when an American private paid a staggering $18,000 (£12,500) at Christie’s for a lot of eight bottles of Chambertin, Close de Beze 1996 by rising star Dominique Laurente estimated at just $1000-1500. A former pastry chef and an advocate of maturing wine in what he calls “200 per cent oak”, Laurent has only been making wine since 1992.

Cult small-scale makers like Laurent are currently the hottest lots in the fine burgundy market. This was underlined at Sotheby’s where a tiny parcel of wine by the revered (and retired) Henri Jayer triggered feverish private bidding with a double estimate $9500 (£6650) being given for four bottles of his 1985 Richebourg.

Rare old Pomerol has a similar effect on bidders, and an American private was prepared to give a top price of $17,000 (£11,900) – $5000 ahead of the upper estimate – for a case of Vieux Château Certan from the 1947 vintage, which Parker rates at 95/100.

Private bidding can even create some surprises for the most famous names of Bordeaux, as was demonstrated back in the UK at the Abergevanny rooms of Straker Chadwick (£5 per lot) back on April 24 when a Devon gentleman paid £2000 for a bottle of 1921 Château d’Yquem. The price was certainly a surprise to another private in this South Wales room who just happened to have sold the very same bottle of wine in London a few months previously for £950. For one vendor at least, the wine market was booming rather than stagnating.