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Counterfeit wine is now huge', warns Sotheby's

Published:  23 July, 2008

Counterfeit wine is a huge and growing' issue, according to the international head of wine at Sotheby's, Serena Sutcliffe MW.

Sutcliffe spoke to Harpers following the news that the US Department of Justice and the FBI has asked international auction houses Sotheby's and Christie's and the New York-based Zachys and Royal Wine Merchants to provide information on their wine sales.

The investigation revolves around whether they, collectors or importers sold counterfeit wines despite doubts about their authenticity. A federal grand jury in New York is hearing evidence and will determine whether there are grounds for a trial.

It is believed as many as one in 20 bottles of wine sold is counterfeit - a number Sutcliffe said could easily be more if it were not for the astute research by auction house experts.

We turn down an awful lot of wine each year,' she said. We do our very best in being an absolute filter for fraudulent wines. I could double our turnover if we weren't so vigilant in checking the provenance of every single wine before it was sold.'

Despite many believing that counterfeit wines stem from Europe and, to a lesser extent, Asia, Sutcliffe said fraud was much more of a problem' in the US, which recorded a turnover of US$167 million in wine auction sales last year. She added that while younger wines are not immune to fakery, it is the older, trophy wines and larger-format bottles which are the most counterfeited.

Auction house experts research the provenance of each wine, not just through every cellar it has laid in - visiting them personally - but also the cork, glass and label, and if sold in case lots, they often taste the wine itself.

In a statement sent to Harpers, Christie's said the subpoena it received from the FBI in December was focused on the activities of a particular client, not on the activities or practices of Christie's itself.

Christie's will not sell any lot that we know or have reason to believe is inauthentic or counterfeit. We take all appropriate steps to establish authenticity, and work with the leading experts, authorities and institutions in the relevant field to research the property that we sell.'