US authorities sell wine from convicted fraudster Kurniawan, authenticity not guaranteed

Bottles of 1966 Chateau Latour from wine counterfeiter Rudy Kurniawan's collection up for auction.
Bottles of 1966 Chateau Latour from wine counterfeiter Rudy Kurniawan's collection up for auction.PHOTO: SCREENGRAB FROM WWW.TXAUCTION.COM

MANHATTAN (BLOOMBERG) - For sale: 1945 Chateau Mouton-Rothschild. Starting bid: US$6,375 (S$8,975). Previous owner: convicted wine counterfeiter.

US federal marshals are facing one of the toughest sales jobs they have ever had. Better known for auctioning off stolen cars and drug dealers' yachts, they're now bringing down the gavel on more than 4,700 bottles of wine from the private cache of Rudy Kurniawan, convicted of fraud in late 2013 and sentenced to 10 years in prison.

He gained widespread fame for snookering luminaries of the wine world into spending millions of dollars on fake bottles of Chateau Petrus and Domaine de la Romanee-Conti.

Kurniawan was stripped of his art collection and his Lamborghini. That left the sticky question of what to do with his wine, which boasts some of France's finest, or most bogus, vintages from Burgundy and Bordeaux. 

It would be easy if they were all fake: Nuke them. But among the impostors are authentic fine wines Kurniawan bought to train his palate and refine his counterfeiting, and to enjoy a genuine Chateau Latour when the mood took him.

It has fallen to the US Marshals Service to weed out the fakes for the auction, a rocky, almost year-long process.

It included scrambling for a new wine authenticator after oenophiles howled that its ace lacked the expertise to spot a sham by the grand con man of grand cru. 

On Thursday, federal marshals will use a front loader to smash 548 bottles - more than a hundred gallons of wine - they believe have been faked and, of course, recycle the glass. 

The rest, about 90 per cent of Kurniawan's collection, is being sold in two online auctions at www.txauction.com.

A number of prominent wine experts, winemakers, collectors and victims of the fraud fear that the US is extending Kurniawan's legacy by putting phony bottles on the market. That would further taint the labels Kurniawan counterfeited and mean his knockoffs could be sold again for decades to come.

The marshals expect to net US$900,000 to US$1.2 million for the victims, compared to the US$29.4 million Kurniawan owes them.

Bidders are advised of the wines' source, said Mr Jason Martinez, of the marshals' Asset Forfeiture Division. "There's no guarantee with 100 per cent certainty, but to the best of our knowledge all of these wines (being sold) are genuine."

He noted that they are from Kurniawan's private collection, "so we have to assume that there was a range of low and high-end wines that are authentic".

Kurniawan's lawyer, Mr Jerome Mooney, noted the evidence showed that his client spent at least US$40.6 million in wine from dozens of auctioneers, dealers and private collectors in the US and Europe.

"As far as I know, it's all legit," he said. "It's not like Rudy was buying Two Buck Chuck."