The astronomical increase in value of both fine art and fine wine, even in times of economic recession, prompts investors and entrepreneurs, legitimate and illicit alike. The surge in demand for fine wine over the last decade, particularly in Asia, has motivated fraudsters. Anything that is valuable, whether it is a painting or a bottle of wine, is in danger of being faked.
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Fine wine, like fine art, is a “glamorous” trade and a subject in which it takes many years to acquire expertise. On that basis, many people view the world of rare wines with suspicion because, as we have seen, the nature of the wine world provides ripe opportunities for charlatans to practice fraud. Art theft and forgery is similarly an enormous problem, since the art trade is such an opaque and murky enterprise, even at a legitimate level.
For every art theft that makes headlines, tens of thousands slip under the radar of the international media. Most people assume that art crime consists of only a handful of museum heists each year. In actuality, it has become the third-highest-grossing world criminal trade over the past 40 years (as noted by the United States Department of Justice), regularly perpetrated by or on behalf of organized crime syndicates, and used to fund other illicit activities, such as drugs or arms trades. So while art thefts may be fascinating and are certainly sexy to read about, one must keep in mind their sinister side and gather what lessons can be culled from them to protect future victims, be they objects of cultural heritage or the collectors who love them.
The same may be said for wine fraud. While it does not have the sinister, widespread implications of organized crime-driven art theft and antiquities looting, it nonetheless has many effects. For consumers, there is always the danger of drinking a toxic substance. Lower prices encourage people to drink more, causing alcoholism and damaged health.
In broader social terms, tax evasion and loss of profit—which ultimately leads to job losses—can be caused by wine fraud. An estimated 750,000 jobs have been lost in luxury goods industries because of the under-pricing and rapid sales of fake luxury goods cheaply produced in China.
Fraud damages lucrative wine brands and a multi-billion dollar annual industry in a luxury product that inspires passion, love, and—sometimes—outrage.
The moral? Don’t always judge a painting by its signature. And don’t always judge a bottle of wine by its label.
How to spot a genuine fake: A checklist
Before opening a bottle of old and rare wine—very much a last resort for obvious reasons —an authenticator will check the wine and packaging visually.
Any conscientious wine merchant or auctioneer will do proper diligence and use these checks, which can go a long way to verifying if a wine is genuine or not. If there is any doubt at all then wines should be rejected.
Ultimately, commonsense should always prevail. If you are offered a magnum of, for example, Henri Jayer’s Richebourg 1959, just consider that Jayer did indeed bottle (or have bottled) magnums of the 1959 vintage. But given that he only used to make one barrel (of 225-liters, equivalent to 300 standard bottles) of Richebourg, the survival of two magnums seems unlikely. And there is no record of this wine in this format having been sold at auction or indeed anywhere else, for that matter.
It is also vital to see the bottle itself and not to rely on photos. A Los Angeles-based wine collector made accusations against Spectrum Wine Auctions of selling fraudulent bottles, which led to the exposure of Rudy Kurniawan and all that followed. In this instance he was correct but the forgeries were so egregious that any knowledgeable and conscientious wine professional would have spotted them (which doesn’t say much for Spectrum’s claims of doing full diligence).
It is possible to look at pictures to make a quick assessment of wines. But it is inappropriate to base full assessments on photographs because a typical digital image and a typical computer screen are not adequate to be able to distinguish what paper or material is on the label, to detect different textures of ink, or to properly judge colours, which are rarely reproduced accurately.
Aubert de Villaine, owner of Domaine de la Romanee-Conti, supports this view. In an interview with Alder Yarrow in which he discussed allegedly fraudulent wines consigned to a Christie’s sale, he said, “One of the problems is the time after the war. The printing was not always the same. Sometimes there was the circumflex over La Tâche, sometimes there was not. (The LA collector) was not in possession of all the details required to decide whether a bottle was definitely fake. Some of the things he identified were not definitive.” Despite the bluster, he can and does get it wrong.
The man in LA had never seen any of the allegedly dodgy bottles for himself, either at Christie’s or at Spectrum: It still beggars belief that anybody could call something a fake or forgery based only on auction catalogue photographs and a strong opinion, and without any knowledge of the wines’ provenance (though the fact that Spectrum did not publish any details of provenance in their catalogue was hardly reassuring).
The arrogance of this supposed wine “authenticator” recalls that of H.P. Bremmer, an art expert who declared that even if an artist said that a work was one of his best, Bremmer would still know that it was a forgery because declaring authenticity was Bremmer’s job, not the artist’s. If the man in LA says that something is not genuine then it is not genuine, despite evidence to the contrary. These are people who see what they want to see: They see fakes when they want to discredit competitors and make themselves look clever, and they see real when they want to believe. “Optimistic attribution” is a wry description of how people will a work to be genuine, even when there is no evidence to support authenticity.
Ultimately, always bear in mind that old wines are guilty until proved innocent.
The decline and fall of the Romanee-Conti Empire: A case study of a forged bottle
In February 2012 there was controversy about a London wine sale that allegedly featured wines consigned from Rudy Kurniawan.
Doubts were cast about several bottles. Twelve lots of Domaine de la Romanee-Conti were withdrawn, including a magnum of Romanee-Conti 1978.
Several discrepancies were clearly apparent:
With immense and still growing interest in Romanee-Conti from wealthy Chinese buyers, there is likely to be a big increase in fakes and forgeries of this wine. Counterfeiters are not brand loyal. Last year it was Lafite; this year it is DRC.
The pressure on “experts”, especially at auction houses, to get it right first time, every time is greater than ever. But there is an inherent conflict of interest when an auctioneer “appraises” a cellar. Because auctioneers rely on consignments for their livelihood there are always demands from managers and shareholders to “authenticate” potentially valuable wines.
Unlike in the art and stamp worlds, there are no completely independent third-party authenticators in the wine industry—there are too many conflicting interests and not enough wine to make it viable as a fulltime occupation. As art and stamp authenticators would confirm, in such a job you make enemies rather than money.