The wine auction market is in an uproar over a sale taking place this evening in London. The auction is being conducted by California-based Spectrum Wine Auctions and London’s Vanquish Wine Ltd. Over the weekend, Don Cornwell, a Los Angeles attorney who keeps close watch on the auction scene, posted information on wineberserkers.com suggesting that a number of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti wines being offered tonight may be counterfeits and that the seller could be the infamous Rudy Kurniawan. In response, Spectrum President Jason Boland posted a comment saying that Kurniawan was not the consignor of the disputed bottles. However, that doesn’t mean he isn’t the seller or that the bottles don’t have a connection to him; according to Cornwell, the wines have been consigned by one Antonio Castanos, whom Cornwell says has acted as an agent for Kurniawan in the past. On Monday, Vanquish invited Aubert de Villaine, DRC’s owner, and the winery’s UK importer, Corney & Barrow, to inspect the bottles. They declined, but Corney & Barrow issued a carefully worded statement yesterday that essentially said: caveat emptor (DRC’s US importer, Wilson Daniels, released a similar statement today). This afternoon, Spectrum and Vanquish announced that they were withdrawing 12 of the DRC lots in response to the concerns expressed by Corney & Barrow. But a clutch of other lots that Cornwell identified as questionable are still being put up for sale.
Kurniawan, who is apparently in his thirties, is truly an international man of mystery. He burst onto the wine scene in the mid-2000s and was soon spending an estimated $1 million a month at auctions. He claimed to be the son of a rich ethnic Chinese businessman in Indonesia and said that “Kurniawan” was an assumed name. Investigators for Bill Koch, who is now suing Kurniawan over the sale of allegedly fake wines, have determined that Kurniawan’s real name is Zhen Wang Huang and that he’s actually from China, not Indonesia (the embroidered biography obviously calls to mind Hardy Rodenstock). A Los Angeles Times story from 2006 gave a vivid portrait of Kurniawan’s Gatsbyesque existence. I encountered Kurniawan several times—at a charity wine dinner in New York, at a La Paulée de New York, and at an Acker Merrall auction in late 2007, where he casually dropped several hundred thousand dollars on a cache of 1982 Château Lafleur. He was a wispy, bespectacled figure who dressed like a hipster/dandy hybrid and who could have easily passed himself off as a teenager (if I owned a liquor store and he came in, I’d card him). It would be easy to say now that I detected something fishy, but I wasn’t so much suspicious as just baffled—by his youthful appearance, and by the crazy amounts of money he was spending.
Kurniawan first ran into trouble in April 2007, when he attempted to sell six magnums of 1982 Château Le Pin at a Christie’s auction in Los Angeles. The bottles were pictured on the cover of the auction catalog; the château saw the catalog and immediately contacted Christie’s to say that based on the photo, the magnums were clearly fakes. Christie’s reexamined the bottles, came to the same conclusion, and pulled them from the sale (ironically, the head of North American wine sales for Christie’s at the time was Richard Brierley, who now oversees the wine department at Vanquish). In April 2008, Kurniawan attempted to sell multiple lots of fake Domaine Ponsot wines at an Acker Merrall auction in New York. Laurent Ponsot, the winery’s owner, traveled to New York to prevent the sale from going forward, and the wines were pulled at the last minute (the counterfeits included bottles of Ponsot’s Clos St-Denis from 1945, 1949, 1959, 1962, 1966, and 1971. The tipoff there: Ponsot didn’t begin producing Clos St-Denis until 1982).
Kurniawan more or less vanished after that. Koch filed his lawsuit in 2009, and it included details of significant financial problems: Kurniawan had defaulted on loans from Acker Merrall, from whom he had borrowed over $10 million, and from New York’s Emigrant Savings Bank, which had extended him a $3 million loan. Kurniawan is apparently still in Los Angeles, where he owns a wine shop called The Wine Hotel. It would be quite amazing if he is indeed trying to sell wines via auction again; given his reputation and the kind of scrutiny that auctions are now receiving on account of the fraud issue, did he really think that he could slip one past the market? What’s even more amazing, though, is that Spectrum and Vanquish haven’t withdrawn all of the DRCs in question (and it is worth noting that Cornwell has said that there appear to be problems with some older Bordeaux that are also being auctioned off tonight and that those wines may have a Kurniawan connection, as well; Cornwell hasn’t yet indicated what specifically is wrong with the Bordeaux bottles). Their reputations have already suffered a huge blow as a result of Cornwell’s sleuthing, and to proceed with the sale of any of these wines strikes me as downright suicidal. At any rate, this entire episode is a case study in digital empowerment, and the moral of the story is clear: Don’t fuck with the Internet.