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Whisky Auctions Are On The Rise, According To New Report In Whisky Advocate

December 12, 2011

Dedicated auctions of rare whiskies are on the rise and attracting an increasingly global clientele, according to a story in the latest issue of Whisky Advocate.

In their earliest days in the 1980s, whisky auctions primarily attracted members of the trade who bought lots to sell in their bars, restaurants or whisky shops. But online bidding has now upped the ante. Nowadays, successful bidders are split 50-50 between trade and private buyers. “We’re seeing so many new buyers with the Internet now, particularly in American sales,” says Martin Green, known as the “Whisky Expert” at London-based Bonhams, which, along with Glasgow-based McTear’s and London-based Christie’s, is a top auction house that has made rare whiskies a specialty.

The whisky auction market has always centered around single malt. Top draws in recent years have included a Macallan 64-year-old in Lalique Cire Perdue that sold for $460,000 at Sotheby’s in New York last year; a Dalmore Oculus that went for £23,000 ($36,000) at Bonhams in Edinburgh in 2009; and a W&J Mutter Bowmore from the 19th century that sold for £25,000 ($39,000) at McTear’s in Glasgow in 2007. American whiskies remain a minority subject for collectors, with the main interest lying in Prohibition-era bottlings. But the recent vogue for limited-edition Bourbon and rye whiskey could represent future collectibles in the making.

The first major auction of whisky was held in Scotland by Christie’s in 1986 as a footnote to a larger wine sale, but today more than 10,000 bottles of single malt Scotch alone are offered through commercial auction houses annually.

“The big international auction houses were not keen on the idea at first, and I could never understand why, because I always knew that it was a huge market,” says Green of Bonhams, which holds two whisky auctions a year in New York, and also conducts sales in Edinburgh and Hong Kong.

After spreading from Scotland and across to Europe, whisky auctions didn’t become legal in New York until 2007. In December of that year, Christie’s held the first whisky sale at Rockefeller Galleries. Today, New York remains the sole U.S. city on the whisky auction circuit.

Bonhams hit the Big Apple in 2009 with the momentous sale of the single-owner Folsom Collection. That auction garnered 70% by lot and 78% by value, with U.S.-based buyers securing 58% and Europeans 42%. Last year, Bonhams held two New York sales, selling 75% by both lot and value. U.S. buyers comprised 67% of that, while Europeans took in 20%, Japanese and Chinese buyers took 10% and Brazilians accounted for 3%.

Early 2011 brought further growth—and an influx of Asian buyers—to Bonhams’ New York operation. Its first sale of 2011 was 88% sold by lot and 95% sold by value. U.S. buyers comprised a steady 59% of that total, but Chinese purchases soared to 38%, with Europeans garnering only 3%.

For a full report on the rise of global whisky auctions, see the Winter 2011 issue of Whisky Advocate.


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