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John Kapon: the ‘ghost’ of Kurniawan is behind us

John Kapon, chairman of the American auction house Acker Merrall & Condit, is eager to move on from the Rudy Kurniawan trial with a renewed focus on Asia, claiming that ‘old ghosts’ are behind him.

John Kapon (Photo: Helayne Seidman)

“It’s a great and positive time for wine. We are interested in positive stories, not the negative stories, or digging up old ghosts,” said John Kapon, a third-generation wine merchant, speaking to dbHK during his trip to Hong Kong prior to its Acker’s Hong Kong auction on 7 and 11 June.

“There are always going to be haters because we are No. 1,” interjected Andrew Bigbee, CEO of Acker Asia, who has left his role at Hong Kong’s Madison Wine to join Acker after the two parties broke off their partnership.

In a much-contested market like Asia, where international and local auction houses are shoring up efforts to attract deep-pocketed Asian collectors, the company claims it is currently the leader in wine auctions in the US and Asia, even after being suspected for its alleged role in Rudy Kurniawan scandal.

“Acker Asia has been No. 1 in the Hong Kong market since 2008, and Acker’s global revenue is estimated to be US$40 million through the first six months of 2017, so we are very busy as it is,” stated Kapon.

Acker’s Asia auction sales generated about HK$243.82 million (US31.2 million) in the past 12 months, representing 43% of the auction house’s global revenue, Bigbee revealed to dbHK.

Addressing competition from other auction houses, Kapon commented: “Competition is good, we like to see other people be successful. It means the market is good. We are very positive. There are people in the industry who like to say bad things about other people whether it’s about us or somebody else. It’s just how they try to build their own business up. We don’t believe in that at all. We consider ourselves ambassadors for wine.”

When asked about how the auction house will ensure the authenticity of the wine on sale in the future, Kapon replied,“We’ve been No. 1 in Hong Kong since 2008 and we must have been doing something right,” before listing what he believed are Acker’s advantages: the wine inspection process and customer services, which according to him, “are amongst the best and most robust”.

“To my knowledge Acker was the first auction house in the world to retain third-party inspectors to both inspect and authenticate many of the fine and rare wines it sells before they ever hit the auction block, a ground-breaking practice in the industry that continues to this day.

“In my opinion, our inspection processes and customer service are among the best and most robust. And our wide international client base apparently agrees, which is why, year-after-year, Acker remains the top the fine wine auction world, and why for the first half of 2017 alone, Acker had more than US$40 million in gross sales,” Kapon asserted.

The auction house holds auctions annually in Asia and the US, and in recent years it started to conduct live auctions broadcast in several Asian cities, such as Beijing, Shanghai, Taipei, Hong Kong and Tokyo, for real-time bidding with collectors elsewhere.

Comparing Asian collectors with American collectors, Kapon noted that the latter has more depth and width in their portfolio while Asian collectors in general are after “the best of the best”.

Acker’s June Hong Kong auction catalogue

“In the States, there’s more width and depth to what people collect. I think in Asia, people are more focused on the best brands, the biggest names.

“More and more people are starting to experiment and try more things, but there’s more A to Z in America compared with As and Bs in Asia,” he explained, citing the Rhône, Napa Valley, Italy, Germany as options for collectors to expand their portfolio.

The fine wine market, however, is still dominated by French wines, particularly Bordeaux and Burgundy, although in the past five years, Burgundy has surpassed Bordeaux in terms of market share based on Acker’s sales, he revealed.

He continued by stating that Bordeaux is still the backbone of collectors’ portfolios, but younger vintages of Bordeaux are traded less in the secondary market as en primeur becomes less appealing for buyers to see profit returns.

“There are more layers and diversity in Burgundy,” he explained. “There’s more to discover in Burgundy than there is in Bordeaux. The hierarchy in Bordeaux is very established and it’s not like all of a sudden there’s a new surprise”.

In June, during Acker’s Hong Kong auction, the auction house introduced four saké lots for the first time, mainly driven by growing interest from Asian collectors after Wine Advocate started to rate saké. But comparing saké’s investment value with fine wines, the wine merchant admitted that it is still not yet in the “investment class”.

“Many people love saké but do not know the first thing about how it is made, what makes one better than the other, or even where to get many of the best producers, also known as breweries.

“The Wine Advocate’s first review of saké will certainly help consumers looking to understand it better, and we are fortunate to have these direct consignments from of the most highly-rated breweries in Japan. As with any fine wine and spirit, there’s opportunity to buy on release and see the value go up immediately, so in that regard, there’s investment potential with saké, but short-term due to its lack of agebility,” he explained.

Most sakés are meant to be drunk within one to two years, with some experts arguing that if stored properly at 30F or less, the beverage has the potential to age for five years or more.

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