There weren’t any Rudy Kurniawan lots to liven up the evening, but the wine sale at the famed Drouot auction house in Paris was memorable all the same.
Fat-cat Americans waited on the end of telephone lines for the bidding to start. Nouveau-riche Chinese paced the floor with enough cash to choke a donkey. Frenchmen grinned and winked, declaring that a portion of the profits would fund social welfare. Sommeliers, local dealers and rank amateurs milled about the see-and-be-seen affair, praying the Chinese wouldn’t be leaving with the entire haul. And watching it all from the periphery — 200 gay marriage protestors pressed against the glass and shouted out requests to French President Francois Hollande —“We want Pinot, not marriage homo.”
Despite the tapestry of odd images, there was a simple purpose behind it all: Sell wine to buy more wine. The Elysee Palace cleaned out its wine cellar, or at least tidied it up. The cellar, deep underneath the presidential palace, holds a stock of approximately 12,000 bottles — 1,200 of those bottles were auctioned at Drouot. The 1,200 bottles represented a motley collection not suitable for the rarified air of a state dinner. Or as the Washington Post put it: “… wines the palace no longer had enough of to service a dinner or reception — or too embarrassingly valuable to present to guests when all of Europe is having to tighten its belt.”
The money from the wine auction will be used to purchase more moderately priced wine. In short, the Elysee is restocking its wine cellar without drawing on public funds. (Any profit surplus is supposed to spill over into the government budget.) It wasn’t the first government related wine cellar auction; in 2006, Paris City Hall raised $1.25 million in a 5,000-bottle auction.
France’s best wines have been stored in the Elysee cellar since 1879, and the Nazis had quite a plundering party on their European tour in 1940. The present Elysee cellar was built in 1947. Critics hit the sale hard. Famed French collector Michel-Jack Chasseuil was disgusted by the auction, writing an open letter to Hollande: “Even if they go for fantastic sums, it will be a derisory amount in terms of the national budget and when you think about what these wines represent in the eyes of the world.”
Despite Chasseuil, bidders (floor, telephone and online) were ready when the auction kicked off on the evening of May 31. Over two nights, 552 lots sold — accounting for all 1,200 bottles from the Elysee cellar. By all accounts, the auction was a tremendous success, with sales tripling pre-auction estimates. At closing on the evening of June 1, the two-day auction fetched just under $1 million, well over the $330,000 appraisal.
An odd two nights of vintage wine, foreign billionaires, and gay marriage protests. Time to start restocking the cellar — with all leftover profit going into the public coffers — of course.