Serene Sotheby’s: A history of Sotheby’s Wine Department

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Founded in 1744 as the book saleroom Baker’s, Sotheby’s, as it became in 1804, began to diversify into wine much later. From modest beginnings, its wine department now bestrides the wine world, with offices in London, New York and Hong Kong.

Early fermentations

Sotheby’s first recorded sale of wine was in 1868 at Wellington Street in London, when 1,300 dozen Rhine wines went under the hammer. But there would not be another sale of note for over 100 years.

The formation of Sotheby’s wine department is inextricably aligned with that of Christie’s, which had re-established its wine department in 1966 with Michael Broadbent MW and other staff from Harvey’s of Bristol, including Digby Lang, David Cossart MW and Broadbent’s secretary Rosemary Ward. That year was the centenary of the only wine auctioneers in London, W&T Restell, whose then head Alan Taylor-Restell suggested that his family business and Christie’s new wine department might combine, with Restell providing logistical help to Christie’s.

Upon the establishment of Christie’s wine department some of Sotheby’s clients started to sell their wine through Christie’s. These clients often had substantial inherited estates, including furniture, paintings and other works of art, so Sotheby’s board became increasingly fearful of losing potential business. Some board members were “not keen”, remembers Patrick Grubb MW, but by 1970 agreement was reached and a wine department was formed.

Fenton’s Reagent

The first head of Sotheby’s wine department was the late Colin Fenton MW, who, like Broadbent, was a former employee of Harvey’s of Bristol. He brought with him his secretary Sarah Nelson, David Molyneaux-Berry (another future head of department and MW) and John Lloyd. Effectively, then, all the founding members of both Christie’s and Sotheby’s wine departments were ex-Harvey’s staff.

Fenton was a protégé of the late Harry Waugh, the director and wine buyer for Harvey’s. “Colin knew his wines, had good contacts and great charm”, says Grubb, who also joined Sotheby’s at this time. Molyneaux-Berry recalls, “largely due to Colin and the fact that the wine department was given free rein, it was hugely innovative from the start. We were given an office that had previously been a flat. It always amused me that Colin sat at his desk in a chair that was situated where previously there had been a lavatory! Basically we were given a blank piece of paper on which to draw up our plans and strategy. I had worked with Colin on this project whilst still at Harvey’s – in our own time, I might add.”

The fledgling department’s first sale was in Glasgow on 16 September 1970, followed by the first London sale on 26 October. At this time British Transport Hotels owned the Glasgow Central Hotel (along with many others) and was launching the Malmaison Wine Club. The turnover for the inaugural season of wine sales was £148,288 and included a bottle of Château d’Yquem 1921 that sold for £38.

In 1972, Sotheby’s was involved with the Nicolas “In Aid of Venice” auction, the first three-nation wine sale, which was to be held in London, Paris and New York. At the last minute, New York refused permission for the auction because of legal restrictions and the sale was transferred to California. Another 20 years would pass before wine auctions were formalised in New York and Sotheby’s wine department was able to establish itself in the North American market.

Grubb Street

Patrick Grubb was invited to take Colin Fenton’s place in 1973 but it was not an auspicious time to be a wine auctioneer. “Within a few months we were all faced with the 1974 recession and collapse of the property market”, he recollects, “but I had good contacts in the trade, having started in 1952. My main efforts were to source stock but also to raise morale in the department in the face of continuing opposition from some board members.” Grubb also recalls being told in confidence by a friend that he had overheard a fellow director in the picture department tell some clients that “the wine department was hardly worth maintaining.”

The millionaire real estate developer Alfred Taubman purchased Sotheby’s in 1983, acting as a “white knight” when the company was threatened by a hostile and unwanted takeover by Marshall Cogan and Steven Swid of the carpet manufacturing company General Felt. After the Taubman purchase, Grubb resigned to establish his own business in 1984, which continues to be the UK’s leading importer of old and fine Madeira wines. Grubb observes, “The department has grown enormously, with substantial turnovers each year, and has skilfully taken full advantage of the increasing global interest in fine wines.”

The strong rivalry with Christie’s became even more intense when Sotheby’s wine department introduced an eight percent buyer’s premium in 1984. “I took quite a lot of flack from some of our clients and Christie’s made a bit of a meal of it”, says Grubb. The wine department was opposed to the premium “but after considerable pressure agreed to fall into line”, says Molyneaux-Berry.

Broadbent declared that he would implement a buyers charge “over (my) dead body” and referred to his rivals as “a whited sepulchre!” Sotheby’s apparently lost much business because of his successful stance against imposing a buyer’s premium. However, in 1986 Broadbent was forced to cave in due to pressure from the Christie’s board. This brought a gleeful response from Grubb, who published a satirical poem aimed at Christie’s that included the lines, “Sepulchral hollow laughter is heard in King Street now / Despite all protestations they’ve killed a sacred cow.” Broadbent was apparently crestfallen. “It took him over three months to telephone me”, recalls Molyneaux-Berry, “he said, ‘this is a spirit talking.’ I did not get the joke immediately, but it dawned on me later what he meant.”

Among the highlights of his time with Sotheby’s, Grubb mentions “a splendid Midlands cellar, about which the owner was very deprecating. A wonderful long, vaulted cellar with vast double bins down either side, slightly damp, which had led to the finest crop of penicillin spreading across all the bottles. Amongst the gems were several dozen Constantia, circa 1790, in their original Cape Dutch bottles. When tasted later in our sample room, the aromas filled our office and the wine was still vigorous and beautiful. It sold well, too!”

On another occasion, he received a letter from Scotland that accompanied a bottle: “I was asked to appraise the bottle and value a further stock of the same wine. It was 1870 Latour or Lafite, I forget which, and another superb treasure but the vintage had been slow to mature and for decades was not toothsome. The storage in Scotland had meant a slow maturation. The bottles were contemporary, too. Anyway, I wrote a glowing report on the wine and valued it. A terse reply came to the effect that the owner had not intended me ‘to open the bloody bottle’!”

Molyneaux Corners

Patrick Grubb’s successor was David Molyneaux-Berry. In his early days with Sotheby’s “it was still very conservative, although its chairman Peter Wilson had led the company to centre stage with his vision of Impressionist art and Victoriana sales.” Like Grubb, he recalls struggles with the board: “We came under the direct control of the Earl of Westmoreland, who was very supportive but there were a few directors and partners who had reservations and were against the whole idea. We won them over with our innovations.”

During Molyneaux-Berry’s 20 years with Sotheby’s the wine department expanded abroad, with sales taking place in Amsterdam, Geneva, Zürich, Johannesburg, Cape Town, Tokyo and Bangkok. There were other novelties: “We were the first department to break away from the very staid catalogue covers, shapes and colours. We were the first to put an illustration on the cover and the first to print estimates for each lot. Today this is standard practice in virtually every auction house in the world. It caused quite a stir at the time but it was clear to us that that this is what clients wanted.”

There were many logistical difficulties in the early days. Before the introduction of the decimalised sterling currency in Britain, everything was sold in pounds, shillings and pence. Sotheby’s chief sales clerk declared that calculators were “not accurate enough” so all calculations had to be done manually. If, after calculating the total value of the sale, it was out by a single penny, the clerk would insist on it being recounted. All invoices and delivery documents were handwritten. In the saleroom there were no paddles – the auctioneer called out clients’ names, with a runner collecting the names on sheets completed by successful bidders.

When Britain joined the European Economic Community on 1 January 1973, its currency was changed to the decimal. The strict clerk now permitted calculators but these were expensive and not provided by the company.

Computers were introduced, which were “both a blessing and a curse”, feels Molyneaux-Berry, “because the computer had to be able to accommodate every department of Sotheby’s auction business. It was a nightmare. Furthermore, the American operation used a different system and a different machine that could not talk to the UK machine. Sometimes at least 30 percent of the working day was taken up with sorting out computer problems rather than getting business. Things have changed now.”


The current head of Sotheby’s wine department is Serena Sutcliffe MW, who joined the auction house in January 1991. She and her husband David Peppercorn MW were both approached in mid-1989. Peppercorn said no thank you, as did Serena “because we had a lovely life. We worked very well together. But then David said ‘you should do it.’ I was finally persuaded by the challenge of running the wine department and the possibility of being close to the art world. Access to great tastings has always been a strong motivation, too.”

Jamie Ritchie, the present Senior Vice President of Sotheby’s New York wine department, had just joined and Stephen Mould, now Senior Director in London, was already in situ. Sutcliffe’s first sale was set against the background of a recession and was held on the day that the USA went into Kuwait in January 1991. It was “challenging”, she remembers. “There were four people in the room and two of them disappeared quickly!”

Although there was no hangover from the Taubman acquisition and “Patrick had been very, very good and did very well”, when she joined the department it nonetheless needed a lot of work to catch up with rivals “but it can be good to turn something around in those circumstances and make the ground rules.”

Prior to the opening up of Hong Kong and the Asian market, the biggest change to the fine wine market during Sutcliffe’s tenure had been the reintroduction of wine auctions to New York in 1994. Because of the legal requirement that wine auctioneers have a retail partner, Sotheby’s worked with Sherry-Lehman to 1999 and then with Aulden Cellars, which was bought by Sotheby’s in 2008 so that it now has its own wine retail outlet in New York City. Before New York was opened for business Sotheby’s wine sales were largely restricted to London. Sutcliffe admits that if New York had not emerged “I would probably have gone off to do something else.”

Highs and lows

Since that inauspicious start there have been many highlights for Sutcliffe, such as “great private collections, not all of which we can reveal the owner of. Many of the great collections and sales have been anonymous.”

High profile sales have included The Andrew Lloyd Webber Wine Collection, which was sold in May 1997 for a total of £3,692,821, a then-record total for any wine sale and which still stands as the best ever total for a Sotheby’s wine sale in London. “It set the wine world alight and got the world’s media interested. People realised that wine could make money”, she comments. The highest priced lot of the sale was “The Millennium Dream Cellar” of 265 bottles, 77 magnums and some larger formats of fine and rare wine. It was sold to Barrie Larvin, the then Master Sommelier of the Rio Group of Hotels, for £242,000. Some of the wines are still available at the Rio Suites Hotel and Casino’s The Wine Cellar bar and restaurant in Las Vegas.

Other big sales include The Millennium Cellar of 3,000 lots auctioned over two days in November 1991 for $14.4 million, a record total that stood until October 2006 when it was broken by Acker Merrall & Condit’s THE Cellar II sale. The auction of wines from the cellars of the Princes von Thurn und Taxis at Schloss St. Emmeram in October 1993 totalled £957,432. (The current and 12th Prince Albert Maria Lamoral Miguel Johannes Gabriel, born in 1983, is apparently the world’s youngest billionaire.) The Christian Sveaas sale in 1999, the Russell Frye and Park B. Smith sales in 2006 and the four Aubrey McClendon “Classic Cellar from a Great American Collector” auctions in 2009 and 2010 have also been successful and high profile.

Individual lot records claimed by Sotheby’s include the most expensive fortified wine – a 1775 sherry from the Massandra collection, sold at Sotheby’s London in 2001 for £27,500. In November 2004 Sotheby’s sold the “World’s Largest Bottle of Wine” – a “maximus” of 2001 Beringer Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, which holds 130 litres, equivalent to 173 regular bottles or 1,200 glasses – for $47,500.

Sotheby’s New York sold 50 cases of Mouton Rothschild 1982 for $880,000 in November 2006. A Jéroboam of Mouton 1945 sold for $260,000 in the Baroness Philippine sale in February 2007 and a case of Romanée-Conti 1990 made $220,000 at the New York Evening Sale in October 2007 – both were claimed record prices for the wine and format. The highest bid of 2008 was £320,000 for 136 bottles of Château d’Yquem 1892-2001, sold at Sotheby’s London in April that year.

Sotheby’s hasn’t always got it right. Some Latour 1982 that was owned by the auction house itself failed to sell in the mid-1990s and a sale of Massandra wines in December 2004 sold only 37 percent of lots. But on the whole, Sotheby’s, like most other wine auctioneers, enjoyed febrile market conditions before the October 2008 crash. The market has continued to strengthen since then. “People can still make a lot of money”, Sutcliffe believes.

Future studies

To mark the 40th anniversary of the Wine Department in 2010, Sotheby’s held a two-day sale in London on 22-23 September. “It is difficult to believe that the turnover for the Wine Department’s first season, 40 years ago, was £148,288 while our 2010 global turnover to end July was over US$37 million. Feel the pressure!” jokes Sutcliffe. “Certainly, this could not be done without a devoted and experienced international team, to which all credit falls. It has been a privilege to lead Sotheby’s Wine Department to this position.” A retail wine shop was opened in New York on 21 September 2010.

Sutcliffe promised Sotheby’s only five years of her time but so far has given them 24: “There are always new challenges, new stimuli. There are still some great collections out there, though most of them have now been acquired. There are still some great family cellars in Europe.”

She concludes, “After all these years, you’ve seen it all. The market has changed since 1991, with huge globalisation. It’s good being part of what I call the ‘dispersal’ process. When you’ve got great stuff, you can sell it. The whole secret is finding the good stuff.”

Reflecting on his 20 years at Sotheby’s, Molyneaux-Berry sums up, “I could write a book about the subject as there were so many memorable moments, mostly good, some bad. One thing is for sure: this is one of the most interesting jobs anyone could have.”

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