Bonhams Results Reveal New Absurdities

Who are today's US whiskey collectors -- and do they know what they're collecting?
For example purposes only 
This past weekend, Bonhams Whisky Auction featured quite a few misidentified bottles. Some will be listed here. But this isn't about the fallibility of that auctioneer, or any other for that matter. This is about the buyers, particularly the ones making obviously bad decisions.

Simply put, there are some folks paying too much for things they don't understand. That sort of mindless bidding is raising costs for all of us, both in collectibles and current retail bottlings. 

Let's start with an easy example. Old Virginia 12 year old "Circa 1950's" (above). It sold for $261.  

Website detail listing sale at 13 Euros
Well, this bottle of Old Virginia is actually a contemporary export. A little Googling would've told the buyer that these sell in Europe for as little as $21.

Or take Lot 215, Elmer T. Lee Circa 1950's. It sold for $333. But the label reveals the distiller is Buffalo Trace – and Buffalo Trace Distillery didn't change names to "Buffalo Trace" until 1999. Still think this is from the 1950's and worth hundreds?

Detail showing Distilled, Aged, and Bottled by Buffalo Trace Distilling Co.
I've previously written an exposé that calls Bonhams accuracy into question. In today’s whisky community, it should be taken for granted that inaccuracies are likely in any big auction. Let me say that again: in any major whiskey auction there will be incorrectly described bottles. Remember, the big auctioneers will not stand behind the descriptions in their catalogs. Bonhams explicitly disclaims any "correctness of description or genuineness." And they mean it. 
So I have no idea why Bonhams listed these as "Circa 1950's." But I do have a good idea why people bought whiskeys like these for over 10 times their value.

"Dusties" are a fascinating and very rewarding niche of whiskey enthusiasm. But the growing interest in them has given rise to collectors with more money than knowledge.

Especially as far as American whiskeys are concerned, the mythology can appeal more than actual flavor. There's a kind of sexiness to vintage bottles that's hard to resist. Drinking a bourbon from 1959 conjures up images of a more "manly" time, like Don Draper in a wood-paneled office, regardless of the actual quality of the whiskey (many are lousy, by the way). There's like a 1950s halo effect, adding a sometimes undeserved glow to anything from the era.

shows more modern tamper-evident plastic cap not in wide use until 1980s
That's probably why people paid so much for the Circa 1950's Old Forester and Circa 1950's Old Charter. Judging from the packaging -- the tamper-resistant kind of plastic caps, the way the labels are designed, and what they say -- I’d propose that these were actually bottled in the late 1980s.
So, yeah. There goes the image of Frank Sinatra downing these bourbons with the Rat Pack. We're talking more like Rick Astley mixing cocktails with Milli Vanilli. Not quite the same image, is it?
Who paid $214 for the Circa 1950's Old Dignity? It's actually a recent export bottling. Was that buyer planning to drink it, or hoping it's an "investment" that rises in value? Disappointment is due either way.

I get it that not everyone is familiar with export bourbons. But honestly, who bought the Circa 1950's Grand [sic] Old Peel? Did they notice it says "1996 VINTAGE" right in the middle of the label?
One important thing about export bottlings is that they're often from unnamed distilleries. They could literally be anything -- the Old Virginia is simply labeled as "American Whiskey." What the heck is in it? I sincerely doubt that whoever bought it knows. We're not dealing with people who researched good-tasting bourbon; more likely, these are people who read about "investment grade whiskey," saw a few magic words in the description, and paid up for what they presumed was some sort of treasure. These are purchases made without any regard to taste whatsoever. All you have to say is "1950s" and people flock to the stuff. What does that say about today’s whiskey community?
Here's why you should care: many of the people buying up these "nonsense bourbons" must be some of the same people bidding on the legitimate stuff. And they're bidding with that same level of ignorance. They're throwing money at an idea, rather than using knowledge to figure out what might actually be desirable. Much less, taste good.

That ignorance is jacking up prices for the rest of us. Not just at auction, but at retail too. Today's premium retail pricing is based on auction values -- so every time bidders overpay for stuff they don't understand, we all will end up paying the price. Literally.
I don't know where we're headed, folks. But let’s all try and keep our hobby from becoming too expensive to pursue, okay? Do your research.
And drink your whisky! 

Posted October 30, 2012
FOLLOWUP: The magazine Whisky Advocate (Spring 2013) published an article in defense of Bonhams' actions. The article wrote that Bonhams is not involved in any "deliberate deception," and dismissed articles like this one as "conspiracy theories," with some astonishingly unacceptable explanations.

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