For Sale: The Real Treasures of a Great Wine Counterfeiter
On Tuesday, the U.S. Marshals Service will auction off 4,711 bottles of wine once owned by one of the world’s greatest wine counterfeiters.
Rudy Kurniawan, a 39-year old Indonesian whose prodigious consumption and sale of high-end French wines captivated the high rolling wine auction world for years, is now serving a 10-year sentence for fraud at the Taft Correctional Institution in southern California.
The wines that will be auctioned were part of his private cellar.
“It may sound ironic that we are selling wine that belonged to a convicted wine counterfeiter,” said Jason Martinez, assistant program manager of the U.S. Marshals Service Asset Forfeiture Division, “but we are duty-bound to recoup as much value from the sale of these authentic wines as possible to compensate those who were victims of his fraud.”
When Kurniawan was sentenced in September 2014, he was ordered to pay $24.4 million in restitution, a sum at which the federal government is slowly chipping away.
It netted $310,000 in October when it auctioned off three of Kurniawan’s cars, including a 2008 Lamborghini Murciélago sports car with less than 1,000 miles on it, which went for $195,000; a 2011 Mercedes Benz G-Class SUV, which sold for $85,000; and a 2008 Land Rover Range Rover, which sold for $30,000.
The wines, which should also bring in hundreds of thousands of dollars, will be sold in two online auctions at txauction.com, one starting Nov. 24 and the other starting Dec. 1.
Federal prosecutors seized the bottles after they arrested Kurniawan at his home in Arcadia, a suburb of Los Angeles, on March 8, 2012. The bottles were stored at a temperature-controlled wine storage warehouse in Irwindale, CA and were transferred to Texas in March 2015 to be readied for sale, according to Lynzey Donahue, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Marshals Service.
The wines that will be auctioned off include numerous bottles of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti (Kurniawan was nicknamed “Dr. Conti” because of his love of that wine from Burgundy). They also include a bottle of 1945 Château Mouton Rothschild, called “truly one of the immortal wines of the century,” by wine critic Robert Parker, a case of 1976 La Mission Haut-Brion, six bottles of 1962 Château Margaux, a 1928 Salon Le Mesnil Nature, a 1959 and a 1962 bottle of Heinz Cabernet Sauvignon with handwritten labels, among other bottles.
The government hired an appraiser, Stephanie Reeves, of Houston, for $89,900 to assess and authenticate Kurniawan’s collection.
Reeves brought in Michael Egan, a Bordeaux-based wine authenticator who served as an expert witness for the prosecution in Kurniawan’s trial. Egan went through the wines carefully, a process that took “weeks,” according to Reeves.
He detected 392 bottles of wine that appeared to be counterfeit. Another 156 bottles did not appear to have resale value since they didn’t have capsules, had failing corks or were not full, said Donahue.
Federal officials believe that Kurniawan planned to use some of this wine to concoct counterfeit bottles. When FBI agents raided his house three years ago, they found an area in his kitchen that he had used to mix various wines together to produce counterfeits.
Kurniawan would take bottles of new California wine, such as Ridge Monte Bello or Charles Krug Cabernet Sauvignon, and mix them with batches of 1970s French wine he had purchased directly from French négociants.
Officials found one recipe for a fake 1945 Mouton Rothschild that called for “one-half 1988 Pichon Melant; one-quarter oxidized Bordeaux; and one quarter Napa Cab.”
“It is believed that much of it [the stored wine] was destined to be used in the production of fake high-end wines in his now-infamous scheme,” said Donahue.
Kurniawan first came to public attention in the early 2000s when he started buying large amounts of fine wine at auction.
He had come to the United States from Indonesia to attend Cal State Northridge, but soon was spending his time at high-profile Los Angeles wine tasting clubs whose members included Hollywood actors like Will Smith and Jackie Chan.
Kurniawan was a flashy dresser (he preferred Hermès suits) and a big spender known for treating his friends to gourmet dinners filled with special wines.
In 2004, at a dinner that was widely reported in the press, Kurniawan spent $250,000, paid for on his black American Express card, for an evening at Cru restaurant in Manhattan that include some of the rarest wines in the world.
Observers were often astounded that Kurniawan always seemed able to secure bottles that were extremely rare and hard to find.
In January 2006, when the New York auction house Acker Merrall & Condit conducted a sale of Kurniawan’s wine cellar, its president John Acker described it in the catalog as “the greatest cellar in America,” and “beyond compare.” The wines offered for sale included six magnums of the mythical 1947 Château Cheval Blanc, three bottles of 1921 Lafleur, and a case of 1961 Château Latour à Pomerol, among others.
The two-day auction brought in $10.6 million—making it the largest sale ever by a single American collector. Acker Merrall followed it a few months later with another auction from Kurniawan’s collection. It was called “The Cellar II.” It brought in $25.7 million.
The start of Kurniawan’s downfall came at another Acker Merrall & Condit auction in New York in 2008. Kurniawan had consigned 288 bottles of French wine for sale, including a bottle of 1929 Ponsot Clos de la Roche.
When the proprietor of that Domaine, Laurence Ponsot, heard that he became alarmed. He asked Acker to pull the wine. The wine could not exist because the Ponsot family had not started producing wine under its own name until 1934.
In 2009, William Koch, the Florida energy magnate and brother of the influential conservative Koch brothers, sued Kurniawan and Acker.
Koch, one of the world’s great wine collectors with 43,000 bottles scattered across two wine cellars, had purchased $77,925 of Kurniawan’s wine at the Acker auctions. He would eventually spend $2.1 million to acquire 219 bottles of wine from Kurniawan. An expert Koch brought in later determined many of those bottles were fake.
Kurniawan was convicted of manufacturing and selling $1.3 million of fraudulent wine after a 10-day trial in Manhattan in September 2014. Federal prosecutors believe the amount is much larger, but other collectors defrauded by Kurniawan have declined to come forward.
Some wine observers believe they don’t want to identify themselves because they hope to eventually resell their counterfeit wines to recoup their losses.
Before sentencing, Kurniawan told the federal judge overseeing his case that his love for wine had blinded him.
“Wine became my life and I lost myself in it,” he wrote. “This obsession attracted attention and I admit I enjoyed it. … My wines provided me with access to people and experiences I otherwise would not have enjoyed…I wanted to be accepted in their world.”