Hammer of the Scots

Hammer of the Scots

If you want to spend thousands on a bottle of whisky, head for an auction. Jonathon Goodall looks at what to collect, and how to finance some luxurious drinking.

Collections | 16 Mar 1999 | Issue 2 | By Jonathon Goodall

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Christie’s in Glasgow provides a valuable, indeed unique, service to whisky enthusiasts the world over. Twice a year, once in spring and once in autumn, it assembles a cornucopia of bottles, then throws open its doors, telephone and fax lines for some keenly contested bidding. Surprisingly, Christie’s is the only auction house to devote sales to whisky, and Bath Street in Glasgow is its only salesroom to do so. On November 18 1998 Christie’s staged its largest whisky auction yet, of bourbons and oddities like Italian whisky as well as Scotch, selling 507 lots for a total of £194,874 (US$325440). The highest price of £5,000 (US$8,350) was paid by a private collector for a single bottle of Macallan 50 Year Old. These whisky-dedicated auctions are a surprisingly recent phenomenon that have grown out of public demand. Martin Green, Christie’s resident whisky specialist, says it all began with Antiques Roadshow-style enquiries from people wanting to know how much their old bottles were worth. The first sale featuring whisky took place on
June 17 1986 when 40 lots were tagged on to a fine wine auction. The first ever sale devoted entirely to whisky was held on December 4 1989, and made £52,493 (US$87,660). What seems to make Scotch whisky in particular so collectable, other than its inherent quality, is that the number of distilleries has steadily diminished since the 18th century, meaning that certain brands have simply ceased to be made. This makes for tangible excitement when a long-forgotten stash is discovered underneath some old floorboards or in a walled-up alcove, as has indeed happened. Rather less dramatically, Christie’s acquires quite a few bottles from people who have inherited old whiskies but have no intention of drinking them.
Shrewd as ever, Scotland’s distilleries have courted the collectors’ market for many years by releasing special limited bottlings, often for commemorative purposes. Items connected with the Royal family have often proved popular. Of course, we should also consider that these finite supplies of discontinued brands and bottlings are eventually uncorked and drunk, increasing the rarity value of the survivors almost by the day. Green believes that as much as 50 per cent of the whisky he sells at auction is bought to be drunk. But, as he points out, this is very much a luxury market attracting some very big spenders who can afford to drink what they buy. ‘I know a very, very rich American collector who could easily afford to crack open a £5,000 bottle,’ says Green. ‘But he also buys mixed lots at £500 to £600 a dozen especially for drinking.’ For enthusiasts who aren’t in the same income bracket some luxurious drinking can be financed by buying a mixed dozen, drinking one bottle and then sitting on the rest before re-selling them at a later date. If a bottle is bought with drinking specifically in mind, it is wise to compare the distillation and bottling dates since the received wisdom is that whisky neither improves nor deteriorates in bottle. (See Charles MacLean’s comments on this question in Issue 1, page 11.) In the catalogue for Christie’s most recent sale, Martin Green recommended some bottles from the original Connoisseur’s Choice collection by Gordon & MacPhail as ‘outstanding drinking malts’. These included Avonside 33 Year Old, distilled in 1938, and Strathisla 35 Year Old, distilled in 1937, both snips at around £250 (US$418) and £350 (US$585) per bottle respectively. If 50 per cent of lots are bought to be drunk then the remaining 50 per cent are bought as investments or collectors’ items. In these instances, age and rarity are the yardsticks for price, while the single most important part of the whole package is the content and condition of the label. Stamp collecting is a suitable analogy. Featuring in Christie’s recent sale, Glenmorangie Tain L’Hermitage 1978, matured for 12 years in American white oak barrels then racked into wine barrels from the winemaking village of Tain l’Hermitage in the Rhône to finish, has proved a relatively affordable investment. Retailing at about £30 a bottle when it was first launched in 1990, it can now fetch £120 in auction. Similarly, mere reproductions of the original 1874 Macallan, launched as recently as 1996, can make as much as £200 a bottle when sold today. Currently, very old examples of single malts are highly sought-after. Christie’s monumental November auction featured a rare old Laphroaig, circa 1940, which sold for £1,800 (US$3,000) plus buyer’s premium. ‘At the time it was bottled it was just a 10 to 15 year old malt, but the sheer age of the bottling gives it great rarity,’ says Green, adding, ‘Not many survive because people drink them.’ Green is happy to give advice regarding the buying and selling of whisky, though being the only full-time person in Christie’s whisky department, he prefers to deal only with those who are ‘serious’ in their buying and selling intentions.He has noticed an increasing number of special bottlings appearing in high street shops but warns that some of the more expensive items, such as commemorative decanters which are neither limited nor numbered, can often be bought at cheaper prices in auction. This is despite the 15 per cent buyer’s premium which Christie’s adds to each purchase. Shipping costs are also sometimes incurred but most of the bidding is in duty-paid prices so there are no extra costs in releasing your new bottles from bonded warehouses.
Green says prices are constantly fluctuating, making it hard to identify any trends. He explains, ‘We’ve just had a very good sale but not everything went through the roof. Having said this, interest in rare items is steady and strong, and prices reflect this.’ I asked him if there is a recognizable collector’s mentality but it seems the only shared quality is a passion for whisky. Via telephone and fax, bids are received from all over the world but there is no bidding on the Internet yet (more of this in a moment). Bidding by telephone and fax needs to be arranged at least two days before a sale and is only allowed for lots expected to realize a minimum price of £2,000 (US$3,340). The November sale was fairly typical in that 40 to 50 per cent of bids came from Europe (including the UK), with about 40 per cent coming from the United States and ten per cent from Japan. Italians in particular can be passionate collectors of whisky and tales abound of a legendary Italian lorry driver who owns one of the most impressive collections in Europe.But surely one of the most fanatical collectors has to be Thomas Kruger of Germany. He opened his Whiskygalerie in Rendsburg in 1994 and it currently houses a collection of 4,444 bottles. But Kruger is a collector with a difference. He is, in fact, a collector turned auctioneer. At the time of writing he is presiding over two whisky auctions – one of mini-bottles and one of standard-sized bottles – on his Internet site which he launched some months ago (www.whiskyauction.com). So far the site has attracted about 250 visitors a day from as far afield as Brazil and Hungary. The process is very simple. Once you have registered to obtain your bidder ID and password you click on the photographs of bottles which interest you. There is a box where you can key in your bids. I clicked on ‘Campbeltown malt’ and received the following information: ‘Minimum bid is DM1,500. Current bid is DM0. A West Highland Springbank. Bottled 22.8.1988. Limited edition of 648 bottles. Number 016. 46%. 75cl’.
When each of the two current auctions finishes they will have lasted about six months and the highest bidders over that period will receive their bottles. Kruger concedes that this time span is too long but insists that next year he will be staging two auctions every two months. Until this happens, he candidly admits that prices at Christie’s are likely to be lower because of the longer time span of his Internet auctions and because of the number of bidders his site attracts.Not surprisingly, Green is sceptical about the Internet’s future as an auction medium, arguing, ‘It’s open to abuse. With rare bottles it’s very important to know your source is reliable. I don’t think serious buyers will buy unless they can look at the bottle.’ But Kruger has tried to pre-empt this criticism by taking photographs of 5,000 of his lots using a digital camera which produces a fully rotating image on screen. Front and back labels can be easily viewed. What all this means is that interest in collecting rare whiskies is on the increase. Check the bottles in your cupboard: can you afford to drink them?
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