Caveat emptor — particularly collectors of rare wine
Jan 07, 2014 | 4301 views |  0 comments | 37 37 recommendations | email to a friend | print
In April 2012, I reported on the indictment on wine counterfeiting of Rudy Kurniawan, a young man remarkably adept at unearthing rare bottles of wine that he poured generously for wealthy collectors. He also did a brisk business, selling these purported rare and authentic bottles to elite collectors by consignment to top auctions houses of the world.

Kurniawan’s case slowly made its way through the court system in 2013 — on Dec. 18 he was convicted on two counts of mail and wire fraud that could land him in the slammer for 40 years. He also faces deportation upon release as it turns out he is in this country illegally.

Kurniawan’s prosecution and subsequent conviction marks the first time the U.S. government has prosecuted a wine counterfeiter. The case was pursued by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York.

An earlier infamous wine scam involved Hardy Rodenstock, a German who allegedly unearthed a cache of rare Bordeaux wines coincidentally adorned with the engraved initials of our third president, “Th.J.” and sold them off to wealthy collectors like Bill Koch and the late Malcolm Forbes.

Monticello curators immediately questioned the authenticity of these bottles. Koch, the owner of three authentic Jefferson bottles, became suspicious and hired his own team of investigators including a former FBI agent who determined the “Th.J.” engraving was done by a modern day dental drill.

Jurisdictional issues and timing have kept this case out of federal court, but Koch is still pursuing personal litigation against individuals and auction houses involved in marketing these wines.

Koch (pronounced Coke) is the billionaire owner and founder of the Oxbow Group, an energy development holding company. Not only was he taken in by Rodenstock, but he also owns a sizable collection of Kurniawan fakes.

Kurniawan’s mode of operation was similar to Rodenstock’s. Both materialized out of nowhere with what appeared to be limitless cellars of rare wines. They made names for themselves in the wine world hosting elaborate parties where they poured generously from their collections of rare, albeit fake, wines. Invitations to these events were highly sought by the rich and famous.

Kurniawan was finally called out by Laurent Ponsot, owner and winemaker of the top class Burgundy estate of Domaine Ponsot, over an offering of Domaine Ponsot Clos Saint-Denis 1945. Ponsot sounded the alarm because his estate only began producing wine under this appellation in 1982. Oops.

Kurniawan came to the FBI’s attention in 2008 when he was caught trying to sell several dozen bottles of Domaine Ponsot at auction through consignment with Acker Merrall & Condit, the world’s largest wine auction house. There is some indication that as early as 2006 Kurniawan was having other people consign his wines in order to disassociate his identity from consigned wines as collectors were beginning to suspect his credentials.

When FBI agents raided his luxurious L.A. apartment, they found a home counterfeiting operation that included digital printers, a vast collection of wine labels, hundreds of corks and used bottles.

Laurent Ponsot testified at Kurniawan’s trail as did Koch, who spent $2.1 million on 219 fake bottles consigned by Kurniawan. Some estimate Kurniawan pocketed as much as $35 million in 2006 from two auctions alone, all blown to support his lavish lifestyle. He is said to be $11 million in debt with no assets to seize.

Apart from the federal conviction, Koch has filed personal lawsuits against Kurniawan. According to Koch, it is not about the money, but his personal mission to rid the wine world of fraudsters.

Kurniawan’s sentencing is scheduled for April 24. The evidence of his guilt was so overwhelming that some legal minds wondered why the case ever went to trial. Kurniawan is likely to go away for a long time — somewhere he won’t be drinking any Domaine Ponsot, real or fake. He could be a great asset to the prison print shop, but I would avoid any Burgundy or Bordeaux with a Domaine of Leavenworth.

Email Pat Kettles at pkettles@annistonstar.com

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