Wee dram, massive price tag

When you can call $600,000 a bargain, you know the price of rare whisky has gone ballistic, says Chris Carter.

897-Macallan-2-634
A 1926 Macallan with a Peter Blake label fetched $1m

Last month Dubai-airport retailer Le Clos sold two bottles of a rare 1926 Macallan whisky. There are only 24 bottles of the vintage in existence. Twelve have a special label by Peter Blake (the British pop artist perhaps best known as the co-creator of the sleeve design for The Beatles' album Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band) and the other 12 bear a label by Valerio Adami, an Italian artist. Le Clos sold one of each, at $600,000 apiece. It sounded a lot for what was then a record price for a wee dram. In hindsight, the buyer appears to have swiped themselves a bargain.

Last Friday Bonhams auction house in Hong Kong brought down the hammer on another 1926 Macallan, this one featuring the Blake label. It sold to an anonymous phone bidder for HK$7.96m ($1m). If that wasn't remarkable enough, about an hour later, a second 1926 Macallan this time featuring the Adami label fetched HK$8.64m ($1.1m) from a bidder in the room. The bottles had been given upper estimates of HK$4.5m. It was no surprise that Sotheby's wasted no time in announcing that it too would be auctioning off a Blake 1926 Macallan this autumn. All eyes will be on that sale.

The 60-year-old whisky was bottled in 1986, and given to Macallan's most prized customers. On release, a bottle was worth around $27,000, says George Koutsakis for Forbes. The last time one popped up at auction was at Christie's in 2007, when it sold for $75,000 so the leap to over a million represents quite a price rise in a little over a decade. Yet it's a trend that is reflected in the wider market, says Frederik Balfour on Bloomberg. Since the end of 2008 an index of whisky prices compiled by Rare Whisky 101 has risen by 580%, compared with around 50% for the Liv-ex 100 Benchmark Fine Wine index.

The growing popularity of whisky among Asian collectors is one explanation, notes Daniel Lam, Bonhams' head of fine wine and whisky in Asia. In particular, he notes the rise of "new bidders from southeast Asia, including Vietnam, Thailand and Malaysia". Japan's Suntory has been one beneficiary two weeks ago the distillery had to halt sales of its premium Hakushu 12 and Hibiki 17 brands. "As the product takes time to mature we are just not able to meet demand," a spokesperson said apologetically. Some online outlets in Britain have already started selling out, says Danielle Demetriou in The Daily Telegraph.

"Nobody predicted that this would happen," a staff member at an off-licence in Tokyo's upmarket Ginza neighbourhood complained to the Nikkei Asian Review. "For some buyers, Japanese whisky has become an investment, something they can sell later for a higher price. It's a shame that we can't simply enjoy it any more." No doubt the world's auctioneers would beg to differ.

Big art auctions disappoint

High prices are still the order of the day in the world of modern art, says Melanie Gerlis in the Financial Times. Yet Sotheby's auction of 44 Impressionist and Modern works last week in New York disappointed. The star of the show had been Amedeo Modigliani's 1917 Nu couch (which we looked at a couple of weeks ago), which had been "lumbered" with a record-high $150m estimate. It instead sold for $139m ($157.2m with fees) to one bidder, its unnamed guarantor.

While this was still the highest price paid for a Modigliani in Sotheby's history, notes Edward Helmore in The Guardian, it was a long way off the $170m record set for the artist three years ago. Nearly a third of the lots went unsold on the night.

The big Rockefeller sale earlier this month was bittersweet too (for the auction industry, at least). It failed to bring in $1bn, despite speculation that it might hit that mark, says Robin Pogrebin in The New York Times. "The total fell considerably shy at nearly $833m."

There was some consolation it set a new record for a private collection sold at auction, beating the $443m for the Yves Saint Laurent collection in 2009. "I never thought it could make a billion dollars," Marc Porter, chairman of Christie's Americas, told the paper. But had bidding for Pablo Picasso's Fillette la Corbeille Fleurie (Young Girl With Basket of Flowers, pictured) taken off, it might have run close. Instead, it sold to its guarantor for $115m (with fees). The picture, which is not obviously by Picasso at first sight, was always a gamble, says Porter.

Auctions

Going

The three remaining bottles of 1774 vin jaune from the family cellar of Pierre Vercel, a celebrated 17th-century winemaker, are expected to be sold by Jura Encheres for around €20,000 each tomorrow. The wine comes from the eastern French region of Jura.

It is likened to fino sherry, but is not fortified, and was said to be excellent when a group of connoisseurs and scientists sampled the batch in 1994 adding that the wines should be revisited in 100 years' time, The Guardian reports. It was said to be "golden amber" in colour, with "flavours of nuts, spices, curry, cinnamon, vanilla and dried fruits". A bottle from the same collection sold for €57,000 in 2011, while another fetched €38,000 in 2012.

Gone

A three-bottle lot of 2012 Domaine de la Romanee-Conti (DRC), and a magnum of Henri Jayer 1990 Vosne-Romanee, each sold for $45,510 in Chicago last month; a six-litre Methuselah of La Tche 1983 DRC sold for $31,070. In all, the Hart Davis Hart Wine Co. Burgundy sale made over $7m. "Burgundy prices have risen strongly over the past decade, reflecting the scarcity of wines from the region's fragmented top vineyards," says Bloomberg.

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