Sunday, May 16, 2010

Rich, Conservative Scammers Destroy The Auction Market For Collectible Wines


When I was president of Reprise Records, my favorite of our foreign subsidiaries was our German company-- and not just because they sold the most records of any company outside the U.S., and not just because they helped me shove Green Day down the unbelieving U.K. company's throats, and not just because I used to love visiting them in beautiful Hamburg. They were my faves because they were, easily, the sharpest record execs in Europe and they had this powerful neurosis about winning. A #2 charting record was not winning. Once, though, they asked me if I would be interested in signing a popular German Schlager band; thats where I drew the line. What's Schlager music, you ask? You know what schlock is? Schlager is the musical version and it seems to never quite die out in northern and central Europe. They insisted they had a schlager group managed by a major German music impresario that would be a guaranteed hit. It sounded lovely, but not for Reprise, even if we could probably sell a few copies in Minnesota.

OK, fast-forward a decade. Yesterday I was listening to Splendid Table, an NPR food show, when I was on way to pick up a splendid table I had ordered from a mosaic furniture maker. And who are they talking about but Hardy Rodenstock (fake name), the Schlager music impresario! Hardy's given up Schlager and is now a famous seller of fake fancy wines to wealthy imbeciles... and he got caught. Benjamin Wallace, author of The Billionaire's Vinegar: The Mystery of the World's Most Expensive Bottle of Wine, was a guest on the show. He told an hilarious story about how a bunch of American billionaires-- huge Republican Party donors-- got ripped off by the Schlagermeister.
In 1985, at a heated auction by Christie’s of London, a 1787 bottle of Château Lafite Bordeaux-- one of a cache of bottles unearthed in a bricked-up Paris cellar and supposedly owned by Thomas Jefferson-- went for $156,000 to a member of the Forbes family. The discoverer of the bottle was pop-band manager turned wine collector Hardy Rodenstock, who had a knack for finding extremely old and exquisite wines. But rumors about the bottle soon arose. Why wouldn’t Rodenstock reveal the exact location where it had been found? Was it part of a smuggled Nazi hoard? Or did his reticence conceal an even darker secret?

Christopher Forbes' problem didn't stop another obscenely rich and undertaxed billionaire. William Koch, from buying 4 more bottles of "Thomas Jefferson's mysterious Château Lafite Bordeaux," for half a million dollars, from the same huckster who also was selling stuff like the Czar's last case of wine and the rarest Château d'Yquem ever-- from 1784. One of Rodenstock's problems is that the bottles were etched with Jefferson's initials, using a technology that was invented a couple centuries after the wines were supposedly bottled.

Michael Broadbent, a sleazy Rodenstock associate and apologist, with a huge reputation in the wine world as well as the head of Christie’s wine department, which auctioned the fake wine, tried a bottle and declared it was “perfect in every sense: colour, bouquet, taste.” He comes off in this like the worst kind of self-serving shill imaginable. (Sotheby's wine department, a more reputable bunch, refused to do any business with the obviously fake bottles Rodenstock and Braodbent were foisting on clueless collectors.) Eventual carbon dating showed that the wine was, in fact, from the early 1960s, not the mid 1780s.

Anyway, furious legal battles over this mess continue. (I don't think Republicans would ever call these frivolous lawsuits though.) I'm just happy that all this money is tied up in bottles of pisswater with rat droppings and that it isn't going into Republican campaign spending. (Christopher Forbes is the sugar daddy of the New Jersey Republican Party.) Koch is a litigious kind of guy and he's already spent well over a million dollars on private investigators and in court trying to get some kind of rich people justice.
The son of Fred Koch, who founded Koch Industries, he lived in Dover, Massachusetts, and ran his own highly profitable energy company, the Oxbow Corporation. Koch purchased a 1787 Branne Mouton from the Chicago Wine Company in November, 1988. The next month, he bought a 1784 Branne Mouton, a 1784 Lafitte, and a 1787 Lafitte from Farr Vintners, a British retailer.
Altogether, Koch spent half a million dollars on the bottles. He installed them in his capacious, climate-controlled wine cellar, and took them out occasionally over the next fifteen years to show them off to friends.

Koch’s collection of art and antiques is valued at several hundred million dollars, and in 2005 the Boston Museum of Fine Arts prepared an exhibition of many of his possessions. Koch’s staff began tracking down the provenance of the four Jefferson bottles, and found that, apart from Broadbent’s authentication of the Forbes bottle, they had nothing on file. Seeking historical corroboration, they approached the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, at Monticello, in Charlottesville, Virginia. Several days later, Monticello’s curator, Susan Stein, telephoned. “We don’t believe those bottles ever belonged to Thomas Jefferson,” she said.

Koch (pronounced “coke”) lives with his third wife, Bridget Rooney, and six children, from this and previous marriages, in a thirty-five-thousand-square-foot Anglo-Caribbean-style house in Palm Beach,

He's the stepfather of one of the lamest and richest members of Congress, the far right Republican kook who replaced sex predator and Blue Dog Tim Mahoney (who had replaced GOP sex predator Mark Foley), Tom Rooney, another worthless Republican who never worked a day in his miserable life. Aside from Thomas Jefferson's fake wine, Koch also impresses his fat cat friends with hundreds of millions of dollars worth of art-- works by Modigliani, Picasso, Renoir, Rodin, Degas, Chagall, Cézanne, Monet, Miró, Dali, Léger, and Botero that belong in public museums, not the homes of rich scumbags. (He also purports to have General Custer's rifle and Sitting Bull's pistol.) He brags about owning wine that he has no intention of ever drinking. He collects bottles from certain vineyards almost as if they were baseball cards, aiming to complete a set. 'I just want a hundred and fifty years of Lafite on the wall,' he said."
“When I went crazy is when I sold my stock in Koch Industries,” he said. That was 1983; he made a reported five hundred and fifty million dollars on the sale. At that point, he decided he would build a world-class wine collection. When I asked why, he looked at me as if I’d failed to grasp the obvious. “Because it’s the best-tasting form of alcohol in the world,” he said. “That’s why.”

Koch may be as compulsive about filing lawsuits as he is about collecting. He waged a twenty-year legal battle against two of his brothers relating to the family business. (The matter was settled in 2001.) He sued the state of Massachusetts over an improperly taxed stock transaction and won a forty-six-million-dollar abatement. When a former girlfriend whom he had installed at a condo in Boston’s Four Seasons hotel refused to leave, Koch took her to housing court and had her evicted. He talks about “dropping a subpoena” on people as if he were lobbing a grenade.

Fine-wine fraud was almost unheard of when Koch bought his four bottles of Th.J. Bordeaux, and the only assurance he demanded was that they came from the same collection that Broadbent had authenticated. He was angry to find out that Monticello believed his bottles were fake. “I’ve bought so much art, so many guns, so many other things, that if somebody’s out to cheat me I want the son of a bitch to pay for it,” he told me, his color rising. “Also,” he said, smiling, “it’s a fun detective story.”

Koch was determined to see Rodenstock-- real name Meinhard Goerke-- in prison and filed a first complaint against him, as a con artist, in 2006 in New York City.
NNo one knows how many bottles of wine-- real or fake-- Hardy Rodenstock has sold over the years. His deals were often in cash. (“If you pay in cash, then people don’t have to declare the sale for tax purposes,” he once told an interviewer. “Two hundred thousand dollars in cash can sometimes be better than a million-dollar check.”) Protective of both his suppliers and his buyers, he did not volunteer information about particular sales. Jim Elroy thinks that, at ten thousand dollars a bottle or more, Rodenstock could have sold ten bottles a month and made more than a million dollars a year. As Koch was launching his suit against Rodenstock, a Massachusetts software entrepreneur named Russell Frye filed a lawsuit against the Wine Library, a distributor in Petaluma, California, alleging that it had sold him nineteenth-century Lafite and Yquem, along with dozens of other rare old wines, that were counterfeit. Frye’s complaint notes that one of the defendants in the case “has recently informed plaintiff that many of the bottles that plaintiff alleges are counterfeit or questionable were ultimately obtained from Hardy Rodenstock.

The best Lafleur around was from 1947. Only 5 magnums were bottled-- although, somehow, these crooked auction houses managed to sell 19 magnums since 1998. And the laughable Koch owns two of them. Koch says he's going to sue everyone. Rodenstock claims all the buyers of his junk wines are trying to frame him. There are two movies being made about the whole thing now!

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At 2:42 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anyone want to sell Koch a cask of amontillado?

"For the love of God, Montresor!"

Re: Schlager, the best known artist in the English speaking world (for camp reasons) is Heino, who looks just like Andy Warhol and made a long career out of songs about getting shitfaced in bars in Latin America as well as recording a version of "Deutschland Uber Alles" with the lyrics cut out after WW2. Makes one wonder who the target market for his records were. He's living in L.A. now.

At 7:54 AM, Anonymous me said...

"a bunch of American billionaires-- huge Republican Party donors-- got ripped off by the Schlagermeister"

Give the man a medal.

At 4:10 AM, Anonymous Penny Auction Online said...

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