Questions Raised by Hong Kong Wine Auction

Questions Raised by Hong Kong Wine Auction

Allegations of wine fraud continue to plague the auction world. Ten days ago, a new Hong Kong company held its first major auction despite being accused online beforehand of – at the least – deceptive marketing.

The November 21 auction in Hong Kong brought in an “underwhelming” US $25 million according to a report in the Financial Times, including $5 million for a “Pablo Picasso oil painting”, which bidders were not allowed to see beforehand, and no photo was included in the auction catalog.

In 2011, Lempert-Schwarz – who has billed himself as an authentication expert – wrote on Robert Parker’s bulletin board: “Nobody can see whether a wine is a fraud just by looking at the label or capsule; that is the dumbest horseshit I have ever heard.”

A Los Angeles attorney named Don Cornwell, who has aggressively pursued counterfeit wines online, made a series of postings on Wine Berserkers suggesting that some of the bottles of wine Dragon 8 was planning to auction were not what they appeared to be.

Wine-Searcher attempted to reach Lempert-Schwarz for comment but he has not responded.

Dragon 8’s auction included artworks and rare whiskeys as well as wine. Speaking about the unshown paintings, Lempert-Schwarz told Bloomberg Business: “Hong Kong people like an auction, and betting against others and winning. Nobody would buy this if it was at a private sale.”

Even if the proceeds were less than expected, Bloomberg Business reported that Dragon 8 would charge buyers 18.88 percent on purchases, so its take from the auction could be $4.7m.

“He’s laughing all the way to the bank,” wine fraud expert Maureen Downey told Wine-Searcher. “This is what happens when nobody gets called to the mat for wine fraud. These guys get together and think they’re going to put one over on Asians.”

Cornwell’s first point on Wine Berserkers was that 245 auction lots of wine were said by the auction catalog to come from a “Swedish Nobleman’s Cellar”. Among the lots at auction were Cheval Blanc wines from the years 1937, 1945 and 1947 – popular wines to counterfeit – that were said to be a gift to the Swedish family from the King of Sweden.

Cornwell asked two Danish wine journalists – who broke an unrelated story about wine fraud last year – to investigate whether the “Swedish Nobleman” story might be true. They found that some of the bottles offered in the auction may be the same as bottles purchased at auction in Denmark in the last year: if so, this does not appear to be consistent with the story of how the nobleman’s family acquired the wines.

Cornwell also stated on Wine Berserkers that Lempert-Schwarz removed two auction lots from the sale when Cornwell suggested that the wines might be counterfeit. While the discussion was ongoing on the Wine Berserkers site, the auction catalog was taken offline by Dragon 8.

Two days after the auction, Cornwell posted more photos of Dragon 8 auction wines he believed to have been purchased at auction in Denmark, and wrote that he had doubts about their authenticity.

Cornwell wrote: “The unassailable provenance which was alleged to exist, does not exist at all at least in several documented instances … The alleged provenance for these wines was simply fabricated by Gil Lempert-Schwarz … He concocted a ‘fairy tale’ about a cellar of extraordinary provenance. Then he added the ultimate embellishment – a claim that three lots (1937, 1945 and 1947 Cheval Blanc) were purchased directly from the chateau by the King of Sweden and given as a gift to the family. But as it turns out, that 1937 was bought two years ago at auction with no known provenance information and that wine is counterfeit.”

Cornwell wrote: “The unassailable provenance which was alleged to exist, does not exist at all at least in several documented instances … The alleged provenance for these wines was simply fabricated by Gil Lempert-Schwarz … He concocted a ‘fairy tale’ about a cellar of extraordinary provenance.


“If we are going to wait for the authorities, we’re screwed,” Downey said. “It’s up to consumers to call out and stop giving money to the bad vendors.”

Then he added the ultimate embellishment – a claim that three lots (1937, 1945 and 1947 Cheval Blanc) were purchased directly from the chateau by the King of Sweden and given as a gift to the family. But as it turns out, that 1937 was bought two years ago at auction with no known provenance information and that wine is counterfeit.”

Cornwell also revealed that at least some of the auction lots may have come from the Denmark fine wine dealer Kristoffer Meier-Axel, who Downey said had bought hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of wine from Kurniawan.

Downey said that because the auction was held in Hong Kong, she did not expect any legal investigations of the wines to ensue even if the buyers come to believe their wines are counterfeit.

“If we are going to wait for the authorities, we’re screwed,” Downey said. “It’s up to consumers to call out and stop giving money to the bad vendors.

(Appeared on WIne-Searcher, 2015:  See here)