For sale: 1945 Chateau Mouton-Rothschild. Starting bid: $6,375. Previous owner: convicted wine counterfeiter.
U.S. federal marshals are facing one of the toughest sales jobs they’ve ever had. Better known for auctioning off stolen cars and drug dealers’ yachts, they’re now bringing down the gavel on more than 4,700 bottles of wine from the private cache of Rudy Kurniawan, convicted of fraud in late 2013 and sentenced to 10 years in prison. He gained widespread fame for snookering luminaries of the wine world into spending millions of dollars on fake bottles of Chateau Petrus and Domaine de la Romanee- Conti.
Kurniawan was stripped of his art collection and his Lamborghini. That left the sticky question of what to do with his wine, which boasts some of France’s finest, or most bogus, vintages from Burgundy and Bordeaux.
It would be easy if they were all fake: nuke ’em. But among the impostors are authentic fine wines Kurniawan bought to train his palate and refine his counterfeiting, and to enjoy a genuine Chateau Latour when the mood took him.
It has fallen to the U.S. Marshals Service to weed out the fakes for the auction, a rocky, almost yearlong process. It included scrambling for a new wine authenticator after oenophiles howled that its ace lacked the expertise to spot a sham by the grand con man of Grand Cru.
On Thursday, federal marshals will use a front loader to smash 548 bottles -- more than a hundred gallons of wine -- they believe have been faked and, of course, recycle the glass. The rest, about 90 percent of Kurniawan’s collection, is being sold in two online auctions (Nov. 24 - Dec. 8 and Dec. 1 - 15) at www.txauction.com.
A number of prominent wine experts, winemakers, collectors and victims of the fraud fear that the U.S. is extending Kurniawan’s legacy by putting phony bottles on the market. That would further taint the labels Kurniawan counterfeited and mean his knockoffs could be sold again for decades to come. The marshals expect to net $900,000 to $1.2 million for the victims, compared to the $29.4 million Kurniawan owes them.
“If Rudy Kurniawan had been caught making fake currency, the U.S. government would destroy his work product,” said billionaire businessman Bill Koch, brother of the oil barons and conservative activists Charles and David.
Bidders are advised of the wines’ source, said Jason Martinez, of the marshals’ Asset Forfeiture Division. “There’s no guarantee with 100 percent certainty, but to the best of our knowledge all of these wines (being sold) are genuine.” He noted that they are from Kurniawan’s private collection, “so we have to assume that there was a range of low and high-end wines that are authentic.”
Koch alone lost about $2.1 million on fakes that Kurniawan passed off as Chateau Petrus and Domaine de la Romanee-Conti, he testified at Kurniawan’s trial. He said he understands the auction is meant to help repay victims like him but argues the U.S. is selling “questionable Burgundies and Bordeaux to unsuspecting consumers.”