A collection of Macallan whisky housed in Lalique bottles, sold at Sotheby’s for £423,500 on 18 March
A collection of Macallan whisky housed in Lalique bottles, sold at Sotheby’s for £423,500 on 18 March

Many of us have had to embrace online shopping this year – not just for essentials, but also to get our kicks – and that’s all been to the good for auction houses.

On 18 March, Sotheby’s sold £3,654,893 of collectable wine and spirits in less than six hours. Top lots included a case of Château Cheval Blanc 1947 (£242,000) and a collection of Macallan whisky housed in Lalique bottles (£423,500). The same month, Bonhams sold a single bottle of Black Bowmore 1964 for £13,420, while a case of Pétrus 1990 went at Christie’s New York for $40,000.

“Before Covid we had 21 live auctions and seven online auctions planned for 2020, a total similar to last year,” says Sotheby’s worldwide head of wine Jamie Ritchie. “We now have 15 live auctions and 25 online.”

Bonhams sold a single bottle of Black Bowmore 1964 for £13,420 in March 2020
Bonhams sold a single bottle of Black Bowmore 1964 for £13,420 in March 2020

A greater number of online sales, plus a more tailored digital-marketing strategy, have also helped houses reach an untapped audience: between 20 and 50 per cent of clients at Sotheby’s drinks sales in the first half of this year were new buyers. It’s a similar picture at Christie’s: “Our sales have attracted international interest with registrants from 87 countries from April to July, and 35 per cent of all buyers new to Christie’s,” says head of wine Noah May. “What might have taken three years has taken three months.” Digitisation may also be playing a part in the fact that Sotheby’s customer base is getting younger: at its March spirits sale, 54 per cent of bidders were under 40. 

The wines of Burgundy remain the most sought after, but “people are also exploring new regions: Italy, Rhône, Germany,” says Ritchie. Big bottles are also back in fashion. “People are buying large formats for rarity,” he adds. At the Sotheby’s Pristine Burgundy Collection sale on 19 June, three six-litre methuselahs of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti sold for a record-breaking $731,600.

A decanter of Havana Club Máximo Ron Extra Añejo sold for £1,391 at Sotheby’s on 28 May
A decanter of Havana Club Máximo Ron Extra Añejo sold for £1,391 at Sotheby’s on 28 May

Big-name Japanese malts including Karuizawa, Hanyu and Yamazaki continue to break records. But Bonhams Hong Kong has also seen growing demand for younger distilleries such as Chichibu (founded in 2008) and Komagatake (reopened in 2011).

Rum is showing glimmers of promise, says Sotheby’s spirits specialist Jonny Fowle. At a sale on 28 May, a single decanter of Havana Club Máximo Ron Extra Añejo sold for £1,391, almost double its estimate, while a charity cask of 1980 Dictador went for £38,720.

A case of Pétrus 1990 sold at Christie’s New York for $40,000 in March
A case of Pétrus 1990 sold at Christie’s New York for $40,000 in March

“People are now comfortable to bid on high-value items they may not have physically seen,” says Bonhams’ Marc Sands. With clients increasingly counting on auction houses to be their eyes, ears and palate, trust, it seems, may prove the most valuable commodity of all.

@alicelascelles

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