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The Madoff Wines

2011 May 18
by Mike

New York-based Morrell & Company is auctioning off the contents of Bernard Madoff’s wine cellar today. News of the Internet sale was first reported by Howard Goldberg on Decanter.com the week before last, and the story was quickly picked up elsewhere. Madoff was a world-class swindler but evidently not much of a wine drinker: his collection included a case of 1996 Mouton Rothschild, a half-dozen bottles of 1997 Tignanello, two bottles of a 2000 Bruno Giacosa Barolo, a bottle of 1975 Petrus, and a smattering of other wines, as well as various spirits (including some hotel mini-bar bottles, which are also being offered). Morrell says it expects the Madoff consignment to bring in only around $15,000.

The Madoff scandal touched a major figure in the wine world: Eric LeVine, the founder of CellarTracker, was one of Madoff’s victims. I emailed Eric last week to ask his thoughts about the auction. He said he couldn’t comment because he and his wife are among the Madoff investors now being sued by trustee Irving Picard as part of his controversial effort to reclaim funds that were withdrawn before the Ponzi scheme collapsed. But while Eric couldn’t comment, I can: I think it was tacky of Morrell to trumpet the fact that the wines came from Madoff. And they did trumpet it: in the press release, the company acknowledged that the consignment included items that it normally wouldn’t accept but that it had decided to sell because of the Madoff connection.  It described the Madoff bottles as “artifacts of history” and said that some of them are “better viewed as conversation pieces rather than valued for their contents, but conversation pieces they are.” I’m surprised they didn’t end that sentence with an exclamation mark.

Morrell says the proceeds will go to the “general recovery effort.” Fair enough, though $15,000 probably amounts to one day’s lunch money for the lawyers (and, yes, Morrell is collecting an 18 percent buyer’s premium). I asked Kimberly Janis of Morrell if they’d given any thought to turning down the Madoff cellar or to selling off the wines quietly. She laughed at my question. “We’re getting tons of press from this,” she said. There you have it. I recognize that some people get a thrill from owning items that carry the stain of infamy, and I don’t want to go all high dudgeon here. But Madoff ruined a lot of lives, one of his sons committed suicide five months ago—it is an awful tale all around, and I think using Madoff’s notoriety to try to squeeze a few extra dollars out of an auction is pretty shabby. Morrell could just as easily have sold the collectible wines with no name attached, and that’s what they should have done.

13 Responses leave one →
  1. Bill Klapp permalink
    May 20, 2011

    The only real question here is whether or not the Giacosas are the Le Rocche Riserva (a Suckling 100-point wine in the infamous Suckling 100-point vintage!) or some mere white-label Giacosa.

    Dan, I accept your point, as I understand that you and Morrell belong to the same wine retailer’s union local (HA!), but you have to admit that Sir Peter is and always has been rather aggressively self-promotional (his resume looks like the one on Leve’s website on steroids), while you are just the opposite (promoting the wines that you offer, the Jets, other sports teams, your children and even Lyle Fass ahead of yourself)!

  2. May 19, 2011

    Thanks all for the comments. David and Dan make fair points: Morrell certainly wasn’t condoning Madoff’s actions by selling his wines, and the notoriety did help drive up prices and generate more money for Madoff’s victims. But even $40,000 is a pittance here, and I personally found the whole thing crass, unseemly.

    Jack, the Picard thing seems to be a scandal on top of a scandal. $43 million for four months work? That’s outrageous (oh, and where can I find a deal like that?)

    Joe, I skimmed the stuff about the Unabomber auction but didn’t see any wine being offered. Not his preferred tipple, I guess.

    Bill, that is the real scandal here–all that wealth, and such a meager, motley collection of wines. They say that youth is wasted on the young; I sometimes think money is wasted on the moneyed.

  3. Jack Bulkin permalink
    May 19, 2011

    Nothing wrong with going for the gusto David, but Irving Picard’s collection tactics of suing widows and unknowledgeable investors who received some “distributions” from the fraud king are barely more tolerable than Madoff’s. (screw the Mets). Picard clearly is not a Ponzi King, but a fee generator of historic proportions.

  4. May 19, 2011

    Mike/Eric,

    I’ve got to agree with Posner, if I’m interpreting him correctly. Madoff’s wine and liquor collection was supposed to sell for $15-20k. It sold for over $40k. Clearly, the notoriety drove up the price — which results in more money for the victims.

    Sure, one could argue – convincingly – the Morrell’s PR effort was tasteless. But isn’t more money for the victims a good thing?

  5. Snowdrop permalink
    May 19, 2011

    At least, Morrell is not making a movie (I hope), with Gérard Depardieu playing a bottle of Mouton Rothschild 😉

  6. Wenglehaupt permalink
    May 19, 2011

    From the Daily Mail:
    Bernie Madoff’s wine collection raises $41,530 for Ponzi scheme victims
    All 59 lots, ranging from fine Bordeaux to the types of small bottles often found in hotel minibars, found buyers, with 54 selling above the highest estimated pre-auction price.

    The winning bids exceeded the roughly $15,000 to $21,000 the auction run by Morrell & Co Fine Wine

    Bids exceeded price expected

    2-ounce bottle of Bombay Gin bought for $300 above expected $20

    Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1388703/Bernie-Madoffs-wine-collection-raises-41-530-Ponzi-scheme-victims.html#ixzz1MoxqRpAO

  7. May 19, 2011

    i’m not surprised. madoff probably drank only on passover when he had to. those bottle were gifts. no non wine drinker would want, know about, or have giacosa barolo. a putzer rich guy might have the mouton, but only for show. it’s cheaper than lafite and from the same neighborhood.

  8. May 19, 2011

    I do not see the big deal

    What if someone “overbids” to have Madoff wines, and $15k becomes $150k…would it be worth it then?

    Why not get some publicity out of it. They are just selling the wines, not condoning what the man did.

  9. Jack Bulkin permalink
    May 19, 2011

    Morrell which rhymes with Hell and is where I hope King Ponzi will soon land.

  10. Bill Klapp permalink
    May 19, 2011

    All that money and a crappy cellar? That should be a capital offense! I suppose that the Chinese oilmen had bought up all of the Lafite by the time Madoff realized that wine was just the sort of status symbol that he so relished spending other peoples’ money on…

  11. May 18, 2011

    Between her comment, Eric, and the tone of that press release, I think my criticism of them is more than justified. And, yes, Morrell is hardly the first to try to exploit the Madoff mess.

  12. May 18, 2011

    I am really glad that Morrell is enjoying all of their press. They are just the latest in a long line of people exploiting this mess.

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