Roger Morris
The views expressed in db Reader do not represent the views of the drinks business.

Lot pursuit: curating a fine fine auction

It is a bright Saturday morning in early November 2017 along New York’s Upper East Side, and the chill of last evening’s freeze – the first of the season – is just beginning to wear off. Inside Sotheby’s expansive headquarters at 1334 York Avenue, Jamie Ritchie, worldwide head of the auction house’s wine business, looks over his notes a few minutes before taking the podium for a single-collection auction from the cellars of home furnishings magnate Park B. Smith.

A dapper Brit, Ritchie is dressed in a dark, double-breasted pinstripe suit with a tie and dark-rimmed glasses.

Ritchie is not simply an auctioneer, someone hired for the occasion to wield a gavel while cajoling reluctant paddle-wavers in the audience or on the phone to bid more than they had planned to for a lot they know more about than he does. Rather, Ritchie conducts dozens of auctions around the world each year for Sotheby’s, at the various outposts of the London-based auctioneer (which he is responsible for setting up). He oversees each part of the process from concept to the moment there are no more bottles left standing.

Today, the word ‘curate’ is an over- and misused term that once was the exclusive province of people in museums called ‘curators’, who orchestrated a gallery’s collection or assembled a special exhibition. But in the best sense of the term, Ritchie curates a wine auction as surely as someone curates the King Tut exhibition or a Picasso Blue Period retrospective.

As Ritchie mounts a podium in the auditorium, it is almost 10am, and there are 1,031 lots, and a goal estimate of $3m (£2.12m) to $4.3 million. It’s show time – the final act after months of preparation.

Working lunch

But let’s go back to early October in time for a working lunch. “Would you like some wine?” Ritchie asks me after he descends the stairs from his office. Lunch will be upstairs at a conference room table, a simple sushi takeout from a nearby restaurant served on paper plates.

“Let’s see,” he says walking toward Sotheby’s in-house retail store just off the lobby, “white Bordeaux or white Burgundy?” He decides on a bottle of 2014 Jean-Noël Gagnard Chassagne-Montrachet.

Back upstairs, as lunch is being laid out, Ritchie is excited to show me a beautiful, thick, colour proof of the catalogue for the Smith auction, now only a month away.

“We just sent it to the printer,” he says as he leafs through it. “Robert Parker wrote an appreciation in it,” he adds, showing a photo of the two leaning forward and smiling between giant formats of Domaine de Pegau Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

“Every wine collection has its own story,” Ritchie says, and he has written a warm and detailed synopsis of Park B. Smith, the man and his cellar, on the opening pages. The textile magnate began collecting 45 years ago, turning a vegetable cellar in his home in Lakeville in the northwest corner of Connecticut into an extensive wine vault. Although the original cellar still exists, six more have since been added.

“At one time, the collection exceeded the equivalent of 85,000 bottles – enough to last 233 years if he drank a bottle a day – Ritchie says.

“I say equivalent, because Park probably has the highest ratio of magnums and large-format bottles from any collection I have seen. In this sale, there is more wine in larger bottle sizes than in regular bottles.”

One senses that putting together an auction is more than just a job for Ritchie, that he savours his relationships with collectors, making his preparation is as much a personal matter as it is a professional one. In 2016, Ritchie and Sotheby’s were chosen to handle the marathon, three-day liquidation sale of billionaire Bill Koch’s cellar – “I’ve known Bill for over 22 years” – that netted US$21.9 million.

It was the same with Smith. “This auction has been part of an ongoing discussion with Park for the past year,” he says. “He’s come to the realisation that he will never be able to drink it all.” In November 2006, Sotheby’s staged an earlier auction for Smith, with proceeds going to College of the Holy Cross, in Worcester, Massachusetts. “The big problem collectors have is what to sell and what to keep,” Ritchie notes. “For them, it’s often a very emotional choice.”

Fine wine introduction

Ritchie’s rise to the top of the wine-auction world has been a combination of hard work and fortunate circumstances. He was studying law in England during the 1980s and working part time in the food business when he was taken under the wing of restaurateur John Forbes to learn the business. It was his introduction to fine wines. In 1990, he joined Sotheby’s in London and in 1994 moved to its New York offices, where he has been stationed ever since, to launch the wine auctions business there. He then took the wine auctions to Hong Kong in 2009. In 2016, when Serena Sutcliffe MW stepped aside to become honorary chairman, Ritchie was elevated to head of worldwide wine sales.

The process for putting together an estate auction follows a routine. First, an auction date a few months away is scheduled, preferably a Saturday morning, when customers have the most time to pay attention. “We start with a complete inventory of the cellar,” Ritchie says, “then we start working on an estimated price – both high- and low end. Next we discuss the matter of reserves [minimum lot pricing], followed by a discussion of timing and auction format. Finally, we sign an agreement.” It should be noted that auctions which feature only one cellar or estate, while often drawing the most attention and highest individual auction revenue, account for no more than 10% of Sotheby’s total wine sales.

Why do such cellars come to market rather than being passed along to the next generation? “We call them the ‘three D’s’ – death, debt, and divorce,” Ritchie says, “although there’s really a fourth reason – doctor’s orders.”

After the Smith contract was signed, Ritchie and his team went to the cellar in Lakeville to make an inventory and take general photography for the catalogue. Then the bottles were moved to a refrigerated warehouse run by Sotheby’s in New Jersey, where they were photographed either singly or in lots. “For a large auction, a photographer may be with us for a week,” Ritchie says. “We personally inspect every bottle for every sale,” he notes. Many older items have a sales history, so provenance rarely comes into question. “Our special concerns are authenticity and the condition of the bottle,” he says.

Sotheby’s also believes every bottle should be drinkable, so there is sometimes sampling within lots. If a bottle is a historical rarity and is most likely not consumable, that is noted in the catalogue.

The order in which lots will be auctioned is determined by factors including categories and producers, but there also is a need for a bidding flow, so rare lots are scattered throughout the bidding to keep things interesting. Once the order of the auction has been determined, next comes photo selection and catalogue layout, with Ritchie writing much of the copy himself. The Park B Smith catalogue was a large one – 260 pages with a multitude of photos. A typical catalogue print run is generally between 1,600 and 3,000 copies.

Worldwide campaign

In the month between Ritchie’s luncheon meeting and the actual auction, an intense worldwide promotional campaign takes place, one that reflects market changes. “When I started, most bidders were 60 to 65 years old,” he says. “Today the average age is around 45. The market is moving away from laying away young wines, which creates a secondary market, which we reflect.”

Changing scope

The market also moves in emphasis from country to country. From 1994 to 2008, Ritchie says, the scope gradually changed from being concentrated on Europe to US-centric. Then Asia came into play. “There were a lot of changes taking place in the Hong Kong regulatory environment. Before 1994, re-selling wines was not permitted there,” he says. The tax rate also fell dramatically, so the region quickly became an auction center. “Currently, the worldwide market is good,” Ritchie says. September sales

were good, “and we now are selling wines to customers in Latin America, Russia and India.”

During October press releases are issued, the catalogue is posted online and copies sent out by mail. An e-mail campaign to bidders and potential bidders gets under way. Several hundred regular bidders are contacted personally. Special lunches, dinners and tastings – even breakfasts – are arranged in the US and in other countries to talk up the auction and encourage participation.

Finally, Saturday, 11 November arrives. Bidders have been registered and vetted, whether they are present in the auditorium, online or at their telephones. The event is also livestreamed to reach those not in attendance.

The first lot up for bid is eight bottles of 2008 Châteaux Margaux, with the note “1 label slightly scuffed.” The sale expectation is listed at US$2,600–US$3,500. Bidding comes quickly, and it is sold – with a light, left-handed tap of the auctioneer’s gavel – at a price of US$2,600, a mixed sign. (With the buyer’s premium added, the final price will be reported as US$3,198.) Now, there are 1,030 lots to go.

More than seven hours later, Ritchie’s gavel comes down with a last smart rap at around 5.30pm. The final figure for the Park B. Smith collection is US$4,912,915, half a million more than the top estimate. Fifty-eight lots, or about 5% of the total, are not sold.

The next step for Ritchie is an event four days later in London in Sotheby’s “Finest and Rarest Wines” series, including lots from the collection of Antal Post de Bekessy, a scion of the American cereal dynasty, who died two years earlier – the most grim of the three Ds of auction.

For the king of wine-auction curators, however, it’s the start of another adventure in wine.

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