For Wine Collectors Buying Wine at Auction

Buying Wine at Auction

Purchasing wine at auction can seem intimidating or complicated for those who have only purchased wine from traditional wine retailers before. Sotheby's has provided Wine-Searcher users with a handy guide to buying wines at auction.

Why buy wine at auction?

Many people believe that only the rarest, oldest and most expensive wines are found at auction. While it is true that the auction market is largely driven by top producers and prestigious regions, wines from all price points, regions, vintages, size formats, and bottle quantities are auctioned off daily, all over the world.

The best reason to purchase wine at auction is that you will be able to acquire collectible wines that are not readily available in the primary market. An auction house can also provide a customer with confidence in their purchase through the added security of its curation, specialty knowledge, logistical know-how, and expertise for presenting wines for sale. And because a bidder has control over how high they are willing to bid, there is a lot of opportunity for great value.

In the search for the rarest and most significant treasures – a benchmark fine wine, a vintage of personal significance, a unique size format or unbroken case – auctions are a place where one's collection and passion for wine can be nurtured in an exciting way.

How is wine arranged for sale at auction?

The basic unit for purchase in a wine auction is a lot. A lot can be a single bottle, or several bottles, or a full case of wine. Often a lot will be made up of the same wine, producer, and vintage in varying quantities. You may also see a mixed lot, a single unit available for sale that is made up of wines with different producers, vintages, vineyards or size formats. Each lot will be identified by a lot number.

Many auctions will have a corresponding catalog (online and/or hard copy), which will list all of the lots available in the sale. These will be listed in the order in which they will be sold, with corresponding notes about quantities, condition/appearance of the bottles, packaging and – in some cases – critical information or tasting notes for each wine or lot. It is basically your guide to identifying lots of interest and to follow along with the sale.

Ex: Lot 1: Domaine de la Romanée-Conti La Tache 2005 (3 BT) (owc) per lot: $8000-11000 or Ex: (Mixed Lot): Lot 2: Grace Family Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon 2000 (1 BT) Abreu, Thorevilos 2000 (1 BT) Maya, Dalla Valle 2000 (1 BT) (3 BT) (sc) per lot: $400-600

Who can buy wine at auction?

Anyone who is legally allowed to purchase wine in the location of the auction may be a bidder/buyer. Every auction outlet is different, but most will require you to register before the auction with some form of government-issued identification. This can usually be done in person on the day of the sale, or online ahead of time if participating remotely. You will be assigned a paddle with a number that will identify your individual bids in the sale.

There are several ways to participate as a bidder, both in person and remotely. These ways include:

  • Live Bidding: Attending the auction in person and bidding in real time.
  • Online Bidding: Bidding online in real time through a designated online bidding platform. This service, if available, will usually have a corresponding live stream of the auctioneer and other bidders.
  • Telephone Bidding: You can request that a representative from the auction outlet (if applicable) will place bids in real time on your behalf, while you speak to them on a secure telephone line.
  • Absentee Bidding: If you are not available to bid during the time of the auction, you can submit maximum bid amounts on lots of interest prior to the sale. These bids will be executed on your behalf by the auctioneer. Most auction regulations require auction houses to execute absentee bids so that the winning bidder pays the lowest price, having taken into account the reserves and other bids. All top-quality auction houses operate in this way, so you should feel safe in leaving maximum bids.

How is wine priced at auction?

Unlike in a retail store, there is no fixed or guaranteed price for a wine sold at auction. It is sold for the highest bid during the auction, known as the hammer price.

Each lot will typically have a low estimate and high estimate listed in the catalogue. This guideline price range is determined by experts who have inspected the wines. This estimate is just that – in some instances, a lot may be sold for less than the low estimate or more than the high estimate, depending on the bidding interest.

The lowest amount for which a lot may be sold is called the reserve. This is the minimum price that the seller will accept for that lot, and is not publicly disclosed. If the bidding does not meet that reserve or minimum bid price, the lot will be marked as pass or unsold.

If I am the winning bidder for a lot, what amount do I actually pay?

The total amount you would pay as a winning bidder in a sale depends on the Conditions of Sale for each auction outlet. Typically, you will pay the hammer price, as well as a buyer's premium (usually 15-25 percent of the hammer price) and any applicable sales taxes.

Where do auction wines come from?

The majority of wines that are sold at wine auctions come from the collections of private individuals, although it can also come from a winery, a restaurant, merchant or other entity. The seller is known as the consignor. A sale might exclusively feature a single consignor's collection, or may include numerous different consignments. A single lot will only ever have one consignor.

The consignor's identity will often be private but, in some cases, a noteworthy collection will have its source identified, especially if it is an indication of particularly rare or valuable bottles coming from an esteemed cellar.

How do I know the wine is good?

When dealing with a professional auction house, the wines offered for sale should all have been inspected for quality, condition, and authenticity by experienced wine specialists. The wines will then be cataloged to give a comprehensive listing of what will appear in the auction.

It is important to note that there is no guarantee that each bottle of wine will actually taste the way its buyer hopes it will, but high-quality auction houses will take great care to ensure that appearance, storage, provenance, authenticity, and the reputation of the consignor is such that the wines will be of sound quality. Some very high-profile lots may be photographed and appear in the catalog to be viewed by prospective buyers, but all bottles should have a detailed description of their physical appearance and suggested condition.

What are the biggest things to be careful of as a novice auction buyer?

It is very important that the auction outlet you choose to purchase from has done its proper diligence in checking and openly communicating the quality of the wine's condition, and that proper care has been given to the wine's handling and transport at all points in the chain of custody. In short, be very wary of any outlet where critical information about the wine's source, condition, or authenticity is withheld. Don't be afraid to ask to speak to an auction specialist if you have any questions about the process or the wines in the sale.

It is also paramount to understand the Conditions of Sale and any applicable rules/laws governing both participating as a buyer/bidder and the sale of the wine, the financial implications and any regulations or fees associated with its purchase, taxes, customs duties and transport, and so on.

Where can I buy wine at auction?

The greatest concentration of auction houses are in London, New York and Hong Kong, although auction houses are located in cities around the world. For a comprehensive list, see our list of Wine Auctioneers around the world.