Old wine, fresh fraud?

Benjamin Wallace attempts to uncover a fraudulent plot involving the most expensive bottle of wine ever sold in his novel, The Billionaire's Vinegar.

by: Reuters: Leslie Gevirtz | 21 Jul 2008

Combine record auction prices, a scarcity of 200-year-old vintages and the Thomas Jefferson name and the result is a tale peopled with famous and infamous characters, plunder and plonk and more than a dash of hoax and history.

"This has been going on for centuries, millennia," Wallace said, about selling cheap wine at vintage prices.

"This takes place in dark cellars and it's in dark bottles. It's ripe for fraud, especially back when there weren't labels and who knows the difference? Who can really tell? It's like a canvas ready for fraud."

Inspired by a few pages in a memoir by British wine critic Jancis Robinson, Wallace wrote about the famous bottle of wine – a 1787 Chateau Lafite Bordeaux – found in Paris under mysterious circumstances and supposedly owned by Jefferson, author of the US Declaration of Independence.

The bottle fetched $156,000 in 1985 at a Christie's auction in London.

The plot pits those who believe that the bottle is genuine against those who are seeking to uncover a fraud.

Before the auction both The New York Times and Cinder Stanton, a historian at the Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello, questioned the bottle's authenticity.

Despite Stanton’s evidence that the bottle was probably a fake, Christie’s went ahead with the auction.

One of the sons of publishing billionaire Malcolm Forbes, placed the winning bid. Rather than keeping the precious bottle in a darkened cellar with controlled temperatures, Forbes displayed it at the gallery of his Fifth Avenue headquarters in New York under hot lights. It wasn't long before the cork dried and air attacked the contents.

Soon after, more bottles from a missing shipment of 125 bottles that Jefferson had ordered began to surface at auctions including four that US billionaire Bill Koch bought.

The heir to an oil fortune, Koch has since sued the auction houses and the man who found the bottles, Hardy Rodenstock.

To buy the book go to kalahari.net.

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