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Lafite-Rothschild Leads Christie’s Online-Only Auction

Lafite-Rothschild Leads Christie’s Test of Online-Only Auctions
Chateau Lafite-Rothschild Vintage 1982 Pauillac. Source: Christie's Images via Bloomberg

In the dog days of August, when most auction activity ceases, Christie’s will hold its first exclusively online sale.

The “Signature Cellars” auction will offer 301 wine lots, including a case of 1982 Chateau Lafite-Rothschild estimated at $35,000 to $45,000.

“Taking the experience of auction online has become an imperative,” said Steven Murphy, Christie’s chief executive officer, in a telephone interview. “Our clients in all age categories, all wealth categories and all interest categories are communicating with us online on a daily basis.”

Last year, 29 percent of the bids Christie’s received globally came through its online platform, “Christie’s LIVE.” About half of those bids were by new clients. The online sales generated $130 million in 2011, a 46 percent increase in that revenue stream since 2008, the first full year Christie’s tracked its online auction revenue.

Wine was the most popular category with online bidders, with 21 percent of Christie’s global wine sales last year. Watches were a close second.

The “Signature Cellars” auction will start on Aug. 6 and end on Aug. 20. The offerings will be “very much on par with what we’ve sold in a real auction setting,” said Scott Torrence, Christie’s senior lead wine specialist for the Americas.

Sourced from three private collections, the wine has a combined sales target of $750,000 to $1 million.

It’s not the type of material typically found at Internet auctions. Wine auctioneers tend to keep the most desirable material for their live events.

Not Pinnacle

“The online-only sales tend to be not as premier,” said Tim Clew, co-managing partner of the Wine Trust, a wine-investment fund. “They tend to have broken-up cases of the pinnacle stuff and full cases of stuff that may be not top-tier.”

In addition to the 1982 Lafite, Christie’s will offer 2000 Chateau Lafite-Rothschild in an original wooden case, estimated to bring $20,000 to $30,000. A mid-range 2000 Chateau Cheval-Blanc, also in original wooden case, is estimated at $7,000 to $10,000.

The auction house plans to create online-only sales in other luxury collectible categories, including watches, prints and fine art. There will also be auctions from single-owner collections.

“We are not recreating the wheel here,” Torrence said. “The thing we can bring is a sense of better quality.”

Comics, Coins

Christie’s main rival, Sotheby’s, doesn’t offer online-only sales. Dallas-based Heritage Auctions has them weekly in categories such as comics, coins, currency, guitars, watches and jewelry. They generated between $35 million and $40 million in 2011, according to Heritage co-founder Jim Halperin. Online lots start at $1 and usually don’t exceed $4,000; the average lot falls between $200 and $400.

“Most of the better things we sell at live auctions,” Halperin said.

In December, Christie’s held an online-only sale that ran as a companion to its live auctions of Elizabeth Taylor’s jewels, gowns and art. The Internet part tallied $9.5 million, with all of 973 lots finding buyers.

Muse highlights include John Mariani on wine and Hephzibah Anderson on books.

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