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The logic of this would seem to be fairly inescapable given the massive prices Mouton’s so-called ‘Victory Vintage’ achieves whenever it comes up at auction, particularly on those rare occasions when it is consigned in complete 12-bottle case format.

Christie’s (10% buyer’s premium) were able to offer a complete case of Château Mouton-Rothschild ’45 in their January 23 sale in London, albeit in less than original condition. Six of the bottles had been reconditioned by the Château in 2002 and the wooden case had been replaced, but levels were reasonable with just one bottle down to mid-shoulder. Michael Broadbent’s catalogue notes described the wine as “seemingly tireless” and reckoned it will last for “at least another half century”, which presumably helped the confidence of the buyer who paid £32,000 (estimate £30,000-40,000) for the case.

This is, of course, an impressive enough price, however the unit price of just under £3000 a bottle is some 25 per cent lower than the same wine was achieving at auction at the height of the wine boom in the late 1990s. Prices culminated in September 1997 when a jeroboam (equivalent to six standard bottles) of Mouton ’45 fetched a staggering £65,000 at Christie’s two-day Grands Crus sale. Some two years later, in June 1999, a full case of the same wine fetched £48,000 at Sotheby’s.
With the stock market and money on deposit providing such poor returns, there have recently been plenty of features in the press about wine as an alternative investment.

Last month in the financial pages of the Evening Standard, Christopher Silvester was singing the praises of companies managing investment portfolios of Bordeaux wines bought en primeur. “As far as I am aware, there’s never been an en primeur Bordeaux wine that has gone below the opening price over five years,” reassures Stacey Golding of Premier Cru Fine Investments. Fine wine auctioneers might beg to disagree. In December, Sotheby’s specialist Michael Egan described the prices of 1997 clarets being around 50 per down on their en primeur levels with the ’98s and ’99s barely holding their own. Nonetheless speculative investment in the en primeur market remains intense. Pre-bottling case prices of up to £3000 are rumoured to have been paid for certain châteaux of Bordeaux’s much-hyped 2000 vintage, and with post-bottling en primeur wines currently providing most of the bought-ins at Sotheby’s and Christie’s auctions, it will be interesting to see if the en primeur market undergoes the kind of massive reality check that the market for vintage wines has gone through in the last four or five years.

As Christie’s case of Mouton ’45 amply illustrated, Bordeaux’s fine vintage wines have not been the greatest alternative investment over the last five years. Prices remain fundamentally static, as was illustrated at Sotheby’s (15% buyer’s premium) on January 29 when erstwhile alternative investment favourites such as cases of Château Margaux and Château Mouton-Rothschild fetched within-estimate prices of £3000 and £3400, which is pretty much the same price that these wines have been fetching for the last five years.

As at Christie’s, Mouton-Rothschild proved to be the top performer at Sotheby’s, a jeroboam of the 1961 vintage selling well above its £4000-5000 estimate for £5800 to a UK private buyer.

These are very early days for the 2003 auction year, but it was noticeable that Christie’s and Sotheby’s respective lottage selling rates of 16 and 25 per cent were a considerable improvement on the sometimes worryingly low take-up rates seen last year.

“January was better than it has been,” said Sotheby’s specialist James Reed. “Vendors are a lot more realistic and prices have settled. Also buyers are looking at what’s happening on the stock market and saying to themselves ‘I may not make a fortune out of wine, but at least I’m not going to lose my shirt either.’”

The market for wine can often mirror other sectors of the auction business. Could auctions of fine wine, just like certain auction of fine art, now be benefiting not from speculation, but from the rather different investment trend known as ‘capital protection’?