Questionable Provenance

In a previous post, I mentioned Benjamin Wallace’s “The Billionaire’s Vinegar”, a true account of a 1787 Chateau Lafite Bordeaux that was supposedly owned by Thomas Jefferson and sold at auction for $156,000 in 1985. Its authenticity is questionable and is still being disputed, despite a settlement for character defamation between British wine critic Michael Broadbent and Random House in 2009.

Fast forward to this week. Rudy Kurniawan, a 35 year old Indonesian millionaire, was arrested by the FBI in Los Angeles for five felony counts of wire and mail fraud  pertaining to alleged sales of millions of dollars of counterfeit wines. If he is convicted on these charges, he faces a maximum of 20 years in federal prison. A fifty page complaint has been filed against him by the FBI.

Kurniawan, aka “Dr Conti”, has been a major player in the wine auction market in the past decade. He has allegedly been involved in several fraudulent wine schemes to sell bottles of counterfeit Burgundy wines from the renowned Domaine Ponsot, Domaine de la Romanée-Conti and Domaine Comte Georges de Vogue.

The FB’s art squad had been investigating him for several years.  Just last month, Southern California auction house Spectrum (one of whose auctions was attended by yours truly), was to be holding its debut London auction, partnering with Vanquish, headed by a former Christie’s North America wine director. But more than a few prominent wine collectors were raising concerns about the authenticity of some of the proposed bottles, based on their photographs in the pre-auction catalogue, and they were ultimately withdrawn from the auction.

Astute eyes noticed that some of the labels had inconsistencies in the use of accents on some of the words and names of French origin. A street address in London is misspelled, along with technical issues on several labels. Additionally, Kurniawan had also allegedly obtained fraudulent loans for his over the top lifestyle and racked up an $11 million American Express bill…I’m thinking a Black Card?

The complaint further alleges that over the course of several years, after private tastings of these rare wines, Mr Kurniawan was having the original bottles shipped to his home in California.  These bottles were then being filled with other less expensive wines. Thus, these “counterfeit” wines would be sold at auction at a huge profit under the guise of the world renowned Domaines mentioned above. The FBI also discovered, in researching Kurniawan’s records of purchases from art supply stores, that Mr Kurniawan “purchased supplies which could have been used to create counterfeit wine labels and affix them to the bottles”. These items included warm white Ingres paper and three different types of glue. Was he making labels for these counterfeit wines, albeit with mistakes that could lead to his conviction and imprisonment? Only time will tell.

While this case is very complex, it is both fascinating and disheartening to wine connoisseurs everywhere. The US Attorney for Manhattan, Preet Bharara, said in a statement that “Mr Kurniawan’s days of wine and wealth are over.”

I’m certain this story will be continued for many months and years to come.

Until next time…à votre santé!


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