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US authorities investigate wine fraud

US authorities have launched a criminal investigation into the sale of counterfeit wine at auction and have subpoenaed Christie’s in London and Zachys in New York as well as some big collectors of rare wine. The inquiry by the Department of Justice and the FBI, which was disclosed by the Wall Street Journal last week, is reported to be focusing on whether auction houses and collectors knowingly sold counterfeit wines despite doubts about their authenticity.

Christie’s said that it has been cooperating with the FBI and that it does not sell any lot that it knows or has reason to believe is inauthentic or counterfeit. This applies to all property that we offer for sale around the world, from fine art to motor cars, from furniture to wine. We take all appropriate steps to establish authenticity, and work with the leading experts, authorities and institutions in the relevant field to research the property that we sell, it said.

Part of the federal inquiry allegedly stems from an ongoing legal case in the US concerning the authenticity of several bottles that were supposed to have come from the cellar of the third US President Thomas Jefferson. However, there is a general worry that an increasing number of counterfeit bottles are circulating as the market for rare wines booms. It’s anyone’s guess how wide a problem it is as some bottles might have been faked years ago and could still be laying undetected in the cellars of collectors without them having any idea that the wine they paid good money for isn’t what it appears.

Today there are techniques for establishing that wines are bona fide, such as security features on labels, but these only apply to new bottles. Before that, documentation helps to a certain extent, although go back beyond the middle of last century and even this can’t be taken for granted. At the end of the day, buying old fine rare wine at auction can quite often be a matter of trust.