Photographer: Lionel Bonaventure/AFP via Getty Images

Don't Lose Your Head! Pre-Revolutionary Cognac on Sale in France

  • The auction is the third in the restaurant's 434-year history
  • The vintage cognac is estimated at about 25,000 euros a bottle

If you want a taste of France when Marie Antoinette was still on the throne and don’t have a time machine, you’re in luck.

On May 9, one of Paris’s oldest and most famous restaurants La Tour d’Argent will auction off about 100 rare spirits and liquors, including a lot of cognac predating the French Revolution. Each of the three bottles of 1788 Grande Fine Clos du Griffier cognac is estimated at 20,000 euros ($22,700) to 25,000 euros.

“It’s very much a paler cognac than one would imagine,” said La Tour d’Argent’s longstanding British sommelier David Ridgway. Opening a bottle “is a way of turning back the clock.”

The auction, hosted by Paris-based Artcurial, is the third in the 434-year history of La Tour d’Argent, whose patrons have ranged from French king Louis XIV to actress Lauren Bacall. A bottle of 1788 Grande Fine Clos du Griffier cognac fetched 25,000 euros in the restaurant’s first auction in 2009. Six others drew 17,825 pounds ($26,000) a piece at Christie’s in London in 2012.

Duck Press

Buyers can bid in person, over the phone and online for lots that also include copper pans, tableware, furnishings and a silver-plated Christofle duck press, estimated at 4,000 euros to 6,000 euros. La Tour d’Argent is seeking to raise between 300,000 euros and 450,000 euros as it undergoes a revamp, while clearing space in its 27-room cellar, home to 350,000 bottles.

The auction, which will reduce La Tour d’Argent’s stock of the 228-year-old cognac to about 15 bottles, comes as interest in collecting rare spirits gathers momentum amid a decline in other investment classes. The high prices the cognac commands make serving it by the glass in the restaurant “a little ridiculous,” especially when a bottle is only good for about six months after being opened, Ridgway said.

“Spirits are really on the up,” said Laurie Matheson, an expert at Artcurial, which also managed auctions for the Hotel Crillon and Hotel Plaza Athenee in Paris and the Hotel de Paris in Monaco. “People are investing because money isn’t making money as it used to.”

Pre-Revolution

The lot of 1788 Grande Fine Clos du Griffier cognac, bottled a year before the French Revolution and five years before Marie Antoinette went to the guillotine, “are in exceptional condition,” Matheson said. “It’s totally amazing to have bottles around with such a pedigree.”

Founded in 1582, La Tour d’Argent, or the Silver Tower, is one of Paris’s oldest restaurants. Famous for its pressed duck, it sits on the banks of the river Seine, overlooking the Notre Dame cathedral, and is built from silver stone from the Champagne region from which it draws its name. 

In addition to hosting dignitaries from President Bill Clinton to Beatles singer Paul McCartney, the venue featured in Ernest Hemingway’s memoir “A Moveable Feast,” and Marcel Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time.” It also inspired the five-star restaurant in the 2007 animation movie Ratatouille.

La Tour d’Argent is undergoing a facelift as owner Andre Terrail seeks to buff its centuries-old allure after losing two of its three Michelin stars in the last 20 years. The restaurant, which closed for two weeks, reopens on Tuesday under new chef Philippe Labbe.

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