Chasing unicorns: an auctioneer tells all

by | Aug 1, 2021 | Article, Wineland

In May of 2021 a rare bottle of Grand Constance 1821 was sold for R420 000 at the Cape Fine & Rare Wine Auction. As one of only twelve bottles left in the world, it was a rare privilege for veteran Christie’s auctioneer Charlie Foley to enjoy a front-row seat at the event of such a prized wine changing hands. We asked him about the experience.

You called the Grand Constance a “unicorn wine”. Does the term refer only to its rarity, or is there more to it?  

In the world of fine wine, ‘unicorn’ wines have become the new holy grail of collectors and connoisseurs. These rare vintages are often produced in limited numbers on tiny plots, and as supply dwindles, the few bottles that are left, secreted in cellars across the world, are raised to unicorn status. For the auction specialist, locating bottles of such wines is an unmeasurable privilege and pleasure, as is sharing their story and offering them for sale. For the collector, winning them at auction and hosting a dinner in their honour is akin to seeing a unicorn trot past your eyes.

How often do wines like this go on auction?

Christie’s is like a stable for unicorns! We try and truffle them out of clients cellars and offer them to our buyers. With Old World wines we are able to find rare formats and vintages of Bordeaux and Burgundy form time to time, but finding a rare New World wine is more difficult and so this is why this lot was so special.

What was the special attraction of the Grand Constance (or for such wines in general) to the winning bidder?

It was a one of a kind offering, sold at exactly the right moment. Two centuries after its birth, at a time when the South African wine industry is suffering at the hands of its own government. This was the perfect chance for international buyers to show their support of South Africa and their belief in the fabulous wines produced in this beautiful country.

What factors determine whether a lot will provoke a bidding war or reach a record price?

Basically, whether the team has told the story well enough to as many people as possible and got folk excited to see what will happen. If a grapevine of gossip is already underway, with people betting on what a bottle like this will go for, then you know excitement is high. The rest comes down to the auctioneer – can they create some theatre that people want to be a part of? Can they ratchet up tension and can they keep all parties in the game for as long as possible? Also if the auctioneer wears a mad suit, you know the lot will create fireworks!

Which strategies do bidders employ to decide whether to continue or concede?

It depends if they are bidding for drinking or investment. For the latter I think they are cooler headed and have written a limit and will stop at that and then break eye contact with me. For the former, they will stop at nothing (if they have the funds). The lot that got away is the one you remember; not the ones you win!

Is it possible to taste the wine without affecting the value?

This bottle was recorked in the proper way and so yes if argon etc. are used. Chateaux in Bordeaux often recork, but topping up is the issue – if you have other bottles to supplement what you take and quality is as good, then OK. If you do not, you are depreciating the value.

What was the most interesting lot of wine you’ve sold on auction?

Bum-clenching moment was the 1926 Macallan for £1.2 million; sheer thrill was the 1821 Grand Constance; warmest glow was a charity gig for one of my friends – the joy on her face as I made money for her little charity was the same as the joy in the Rupert Museum this May when I bellowed ‘sold’ on the 1821.

A toast to the industry

While most bidders probably wanted this wine for the prestige of being the only person in their circles to have a wine with such a story; others may have had the idea of enjoying it at a special dinner with friends. Michael Fridjhon was one of the bidders at this memorable auction. “There were several commission bids and I was asked to exercise one of them so that Charlie could keep track of them,” he says. “It would have been unethical for him to know the maximum limit to each bid, so a third party must bid to the limit of that particular buyer.”

“There’s no disputing the importance of a genuine bottle of ancient Constantia/Constance. They are rare, and date from an era when it was the most valuable wine in the world and therefore, by the taste of the time, possibly the best bottles of wine.”

Would Michael have kept it, or opened it?

“In theory – if I had been bidding on my own account – I would have served it. I’ve been through a few bottles in my time and it is extraordinary wine, worth sharing with people who care about great wine, South African history, and a long lost world.”

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