The first Jefferson bottle, a 1787 Lafite, was offered at auction by Christie’s auction house in 1985. The owner of these miraculous bottles, a German by the name of Hardy Rodenstock, had previously opened some of these bottles for his rich and famous acquaintances and well-known wine critics of the day.
Rodenstock, a mysterious bon vivant on the continent, entertained with lavish wine tastings, plying guests with rare, priceless bottles like the “Th.J”-engraved ones he allegedly secured from an individual who found the cache in a walled-up cellar in Paris.
Wine critics of the day were enamored with Rodenstock, and many should have asked more questions before singing the praises of and vetting Rodenstock’s rare bottles.
Even as Kip Forbes, son of the late Malcolm Forbes, was bidding a record-setting $156,000 for a single bottle of wine at Christie’s, red flags had been raised by curators at Jefferson’s Monticello estate.
Wine bottles engraved with Jefferson’s initials had never been found in any excavation at Monticello, and no documentation of an order for such wines could be found among any of the meticulous records kept by Jefferson.
In 1988, billionaire William Ingraham Koch, founder of Oxbow Group, an energy development holding company, bought a Jefferson bottle, the first of four he would eventually buy. They became the centerpiece of his 35,000-bottle wine collection.
A museum show mounted in Boston in 2005 featuring items from Koch’s collection was slated to include one of the Jefferson bottles. But when the show opened, no Jefferson bottle was displayed — likely because Koch and the museum had questions about the bottle’s authenticity.
Koch hired his own team of investigators and scientists to determine the authenticity of his Jefferson bottles, along with other rarities in his collection. The Jefferson bottles and many others were determined to be frauds.
The saga of the Jefferson bottles, Koch’s mission to authenticate them and the subsequent lawsuits filed are chronicled in “The Billionaire’s Vinegar,” a bestselling book by Benjamin Wallace.
One would think that, with all the publicity surrounding the fraudulent bottles, merchants, auction houses and collectors would be on the alert. One would be wrong.
Just last month, the FBI arrested Rudy Kurniawan, an alleged Indonesian millionaire residing in Los Angeles. New York federal prosecutors accuse Kurniawan of multiple fraudulent schemes, including trying to sell 84 bottles of counterfeit Domaine Ponsot, a top-notch Burgundy.
Although Kurniawan had been suspect for some time, it was simple mistakes that led to his arrest.
One Ponsot forgery carried the vintage date of 1929, even though the estate did not begin bottling until 1934. Oops!
Other bottles offered were from specific named vineyards dating from 1945 to 1971, although Ponsot did not start using vineyard designations until 1982. Double oops!
It did not help Kurniawan’s case when agents found thousands of fraudulent labels, corking apparatus and capsule-making equipment in his LA apartment. Triple oops!
Did I mention Mr. Kurniawan is in this country illegally? His asylum visa expired in 2001. He was ordered to leave the country, but did not. He was living large in California, supporting himself by bilking wine investors.
Kurniawan, once known as one of the world’s up-and-coming wine collectors, is being sued by a host of people, including — you guessed it — William Koch. What was that P. T. Barnum said about a sucker being born every minute?
Do average wine collectors have to worry about the authenticity of their favorite Kendall Jackson? No. There are no millions to be made from forging reasonably priced wines.
But if you happen to be among the super-rich and are contemplating the purchase of rare bottles, remember your high school economics, and caveat emptor.