May 27, 2011

A very long day pt 2: excruciatingly slow auction

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My friend asked me to accompany her to the Christie's auction today, as her usual escort was unavailable and she didn't want to be sitting through it all by herself.  This was a pretty unique auction, with the single consignor being Bordeaux's famed Château Latour.  The consignor had taken wines from their own cellar (an ex-cellar/château sale) so the provenance is impeccable and cannot be surpassed.  There were more than 100 vintages on sale, including just about every vintage from the 20th Century and reaching back into the 19th Century.  There were 392 lots in total.

In conjunction (and actually prior to) this auction, Château Latour and Christie's put together "The Ultimate Wine Game" and invited a small group of participants from around the world. Two of my friends were among the participants, and it was clearly a mind-blowing experience for both of them.  The friend I accompanied was featured both in the videos and the catalog, so I decided for once to dress up for the auction...

The auction area inside the Convention Centre was a lot smaller than I expected, and there weren't as many people in attendance as I am used to seeing.  I sat down with my paddle and stared at the auctioneer and the screen.  Frédéric and the team from Latour were at the scene, watching the action like hawks.  I ran into a few friends, including Pineapple who is a friend of the château.  We jokingly ask him not to mark up his prices following the auction...

As I had just registered for the auction on the spot, I was in need of a catalog to be able to see which lots are being auctioned off.  The registration desk told me to go downstairs to get one.  When I got to the counter, the catalogs were for sale only, and I had to fork out money to buy one.  WTF?!  I just registered for the auction and was intending to bid, but these guys couldn't even give me a catalog?  Every other auction house - and I have been to a few auctions around town - hands them out like there's no tomorrow.  I have to turn people down at other auctions and tell them I've already got one in the mail.  So why does Christie's insist on making me buy one?!

Eventually I see an opening and go up to talk to the Other Specialist, who I happen to know.  I asked him for a catalog and he kindly obliged, so I was no longer flying blind.

There was no food being served at the auction - another surprise - and there was no way we were going to starve throughout the evening.  My friend and I decided to go and grab a bite.  We didn't have reservations anywhere, and eventually get the concierge at the Grand Hyatt to grab us a table at the Grand Cafe.

I was originally gonna grab a hamburger to go with the wine we were opening, as I've always loved the idea of having it with a kick-ass bottle of wine.  My friend scanned the buffet and decided that some of the items were better suited to go with the wine, so we changed our minds.

So... my dinner consisted of a plate full of pan-fried pigeon (炸乳鴿), fatty barbecued pork (叉燒) and Peking duck (北京烤鴨) rolled in pancakes.  All of them would be considered perfect to go with the bottle of 1995 DRC La Tâche my friend generously shared with me.

After I finished chowing down, we returned to the auction and sat through the remainder.  Both the auctioneers were extremely slow.  Understandably, this consignment included a lot of rare treasures, and it was in the interests of both the consignor and the auction house to take it easy and allow more time for bidders to make up their minds and commit.  However, surely not every single one of the 392 lots would be considered a treasure?  The fact that the auctioneer didn't offer identical lots as parcels also slowed down the action, as we'd have to start from the low end of the estimates and work every bid increment back up to above the high end on the majority of the lots.

I was already tired from having a late night last night, and the slow action wasn't helping.  I estimated that the auctioneers were doing about 50 lots per hour, far below the 100 lots per hour - already slow by NYC standards - that I was used to from other houses in Hong Kong.  My friend jokingly challenged my numbers, saying that it must have been 45 lots per auction.  At one point I was so excruciatingly tired and bored that I wrote "KILL ME NOW" on Facebook...

The one good thing about the auction would be that I was able to pick up a few bottles of ex-château stock from dad's vintage.  These were never easy to find, but to get some with impeccable provenance at a "reasonable" price was just my luck.  Hammer price for the next, identical lot was 25% higher...  No such luck with mom's vintage though... just too ridiculously expensive.

The auction was clearly a success from the perspective of both Christie's and Château Latour, judging from the prices achieved tonight.  The fact that the hammer price on the final lot - a balthazar of 2009 Pauillac de Château Latour - was HKD 38,000 leaves little doubt as to what people were willing to pay.  However, for HKD 2,900 per equivalent bottle I could think of many, many other choices to pick up...

The auction started at 5:30pm and finally ended at 1am the next morning.  Yes, we stayed till the very end.  It took 7½ hours to go through 392 lots, which works out to about 52 lots per hour.  The word "excruciating" comes to mind.  After tonight's experience, I promised never again to complain about how slow Gil is at the Acker auctions...

Here are the wines we drank tonight:

2000 Les Forts de Latour en magnum - served at the auction.  Lots of dried herbs, cedar, smoke, nutmeg and chocolate.  A lovely wine, but not for the prices buyers paid at the auction...

1995 DRC La Tâche - opened at the Grand Cafe.  Initially the nose was very muted with notes of dried herbs, and we had only one pour during dinner.  The second pour was at the auction 4 hours later.  Opened up nicely with lovely nose of dried fruits, prunes, dried herbs and potpourri.  A little acidic on the palate.  We decided not to finish the wine in the auction room but brought it back to my friend's place.  Turned out to be a mistake, as either the decanter or the glasses - or both - had that wooden cabinet smell which got to the wine.  5½ hours after opening, the wine smelled tired, old and dusty - like we were drinking cloudy sediment from a very old bottle.  A shame.

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