The most expensive bottle of wine ever sold at auction was offered at Christie’s in London, on December 5, 1985. The bottle was handblown dark-green glass and capped with a nubby seal of thick black wax. It had no label, but etched into the glass in a spindly hand was the year 1787, the word “Lafitte,” and the letters “Th.J.”
The bottle came from a collection of wine that had reportedly been discovered behind a bricked-up cellar wall in an old building in Paris. The wines bore the names of top vineyards—along with Lafitte (which is now spelled “Lafite”), there were bottles from Châteaux d’Yquem, Mouton, and Margaux—and those initials, “Th.J.” According to the catalogue, evidence suggested that the wine had belonged to Thomas Jefferson, and that the bottle at auction could “rightly be considered one of the world’s greatest rarities.” The level of the wine was “exceptionally high” for such an old bottle—just half an inch below the cork—and the color “remarkably deep for its age.” The wine’s value was listed as “inestimable.”
Before auctioning the wine, Michael Broadbent, the head of Christie’s wine department, consulted with the auction house’s glass experts, who confirmed that both the bottle and the engraving were in the eighteenth-century French style. Jefferson had served as America’s Minister to France between 1785 and the outbreak of the French Revolution, and had developed a fascination with French wine. Upon his return to America, he continued to order large quantities of Bordeaux for himself and for George Washington, and stipulated in one 1790 letter that their respective shipments should be marked with their initials. During his first term as President, Jefferson spent seventy-five hundred dollars—roughly a hundred and twenty thousand dollars in today’s currency—on wine, and he is generally regarded as America’s first great wine connoisseur. (He may also have been America’s first great wine bore. “There was, as usual, a dissertation upon wines,” John Quincy Adams noted in his diary after dining with Jefferson in 1807. “Not very edifying.”)
In addition to surveying the relevant historical material, Broadbent had sampled two other bottles from the collection. Some nineteenth-century vintages still taste delicious, provided they have been properly stored. But eighteenth-century wine is extremely rare, and it was not clear whether the Th.J. bottles would hold up. Broadbent is a Master of Wine, a professional certification for wine writers, dealers, and sommeliers, which connotes extensive experience with fine wine, and discriminating judgment. He pronounced a 1784 Th.J. Yquem “perfect in every sense: colour, bouquet, taste.”
At two-thirty that December afternoon, Broadbent opened the bidding, at ten thousand pounds. Less than two minutes later, his gavel fell. The winning bidder was Christopher Forbes, the son of Malcolm Forbes and a vice-president of the magazineForbes. The final price was a hundred and five thousand pounds—about a hundred and fifty-seven thousand dollars. “It’s more fun than the opera glasses Lincoln was holding when he was shot,” Forbes declared, adding, “And we have those, too.”
After the auction, other serious collectors sought out Jefferson bottles. The publisher of Wine Spectator bought a bottle through Christie’s. A mysterious Middle Eastern businessman bought another. And in late 1988 an American tycoon named Bill Koch purchased four bottles. 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. When I visited him there not long ago, the front lawn had been excavated to extend the house’s basement. Koch explained that he needs more storage space. “I’m a bit of a compulsive collector,” he said. We strolled past Modigliani’s 1917 “Reclining Nude” and Picasso’s blue-period “Night Club Singer,” a Renoir, a Rodin, and works by Degas, Chagall, Cézanne, Monet, Miró, Dali, Léger, and Botero. Surveillance cameras, encased in little bulbs of black glass, protruded from the ceiling.
“My father was a collector of sorts,” Koch said. “I guess I got it from him. He had a small collection of Impressionist art. He collected shotguns. Then he collected ranches.” We sat down in Koch’s “cowboy room,” surrounded by Charles Marion Russell paintings, Frederic Remington bronzes of men on horseback, antique cowboy hats, bowie knives, and dozens of guns, displayed in glass-topped cases: Jesse James’s gun, Jesse James’s killer’s gun, Sitting Bull’s pistol, General Custer’s rifle.
ILLUSTRATION: BENOÎT VAN INNIS
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