The incredible story of Koch's Jefferson bottle of Laffite 1787

Part two.


Text from The New Yorker, by Patrick Radden Keefe.

"After the auction, other serious collectors sought out Jefferson bottles. The publisher of Wine Spectator bought a bottle through Christie’s. A mysterious Middle Eastern businessman bought another. And in late 1988 an American tycoon named Bill Koch purchased four bottles. The son of Fred Koch, who founded Koch Industries, he lived in Dover, Massachusetts, and ran his own highly profitable energy company, the Oxbow Corporation. Koch purchased a 1787 Branne Mouton from the Chicago Wine Company in November, 1988. The next month, he bought a 1784 Branne Mouton, a 1784 Lafitte, and a 1787 Lafitte from Farr Vintners, a British retailer. Altogether, Koch spent half a million dollars on the bottles. He installed them in his capacious, climate-controlled wine cellar, and took them out occasionally over the next fifteen years to show them off to friends.
Koch’s collection of art and antiques is valued at several hundred million dollars, and in 2005 the Boston Museum of Fine Arts prepared an exhibition of many of his possessions. Koch’s staff began tracking down the provenance of the four Jefferson bottles, and found that, apart from Broadbent’s authentication of the Forbes bottle, they had nothing on file. Seeking historical corroboration, they approached the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, at Monticello, in Charlottesville, Virginia. Several days later, Monticello’s curator, Susan Stein, telephoned. “We don’t believe those bottles ever belonged to Thomas Jefferson,” she said.
Koch (pronounced “coke”) lives with his third wife, Bridget Rooney, and six children, from this and previous marriages, in a thirty-five-thousand-square-foot Anglo-Caribbean-style house in Palm Beach. When I visited him there not long ago, the front lawn had been excavated to extend the house’s basement. Koch explained that he needs more storage space. “I’m a bit of a compulsive collector,” he said. We strolled past Modigliani’s 1917 “Reclining Nude” and Picasso’s blue-period “Night Club Singer,” a Renoir, a Rodin, and works by Degas, Chagall, Cézanne, Monet, Miró, Dali, Léger, and Botero. Surveillance cameras, encased in little bulbs of black glass, protruded from the ceiling.
“My father was a collector of sorts,” Koch said. “I guess I got it from him. He had a small collection of Impressionist art. He collected shotguns. Then he collected ranches.” We sat down in Koch’s “cowboy room,” surrounded by Charles Marion Russell paintings, Frederic Remington bronzes of men on horseback, antique cowboy hats, bowie knives, and dozens of guns, displayed in glass-topped cases: Jesse James’s gun, Jesse James’s killer’s gun, Sitting Bull’s pistol, General Custer’s rifle.
Koch, who is sixty-seven, is rangy and tall, with tousled white hair, round spectacles, and a boyish, high-pitched laugh. At M.I.T., where he received his undergraduate degree and a Ph.D. in chemical engineering, he contracted hepatitis, and could no longer stomach hard alcohol. But he could drink wine. At restaurants, he ordered the most expensive wines on the list, and discovered some that he liked. Eventually, he began purchasing wine at auction: first-growth Bordeaux, like Lafite and Latour, and the famous Burgundies of Romanée-Conti. “When I went crazy is when I sold my stock in Koch Industries,” he said. That was 1983; he made a reported five hundred and fifty million dollars on the sale. At that point, he decided he would build a world-class wine collection. When I asked why, he looked at me as if I’d failed to grasp the obvious. “Because it’s the best-tasting form of alcohol in the world,” he said. “That’s why.”
Koch may be as compulsive about filing lawsuits as he is about collecting. He waged a twenty-year legal battle against two of his brothers relating to the family business. (The matter was settled in 2001.) He sued the state of Massachusetts over an improperly taxed stock transaction and won a forty-six-million-dollar abatement. When a former girlfriend whom he had installed at a condo in Boston’s Four Seasons hotel refused to leave, Koch took her to housing court and had her evicted. He talks about “dropping a subpoena” on people as if he were lobbing a grenade.
Fine-wine fraud was almost unheard of when Koch bought his four bottles of Th.J. Bordeaux, and the only assurance he demanded was that they came from the same collection that Broadbent had authenticated. He was angry to find out that Monticello believed his bottles were fake. “I’ve bought so much art, so many guns, so many other things, that if somebody’s out to cheat me I want the son of a bitch to pay for it,” he told me, his color rising. “Also,” he said, smiling, “it’s a fun detective story.”
The extraordinary inflation of rare-wine prices—of which the Jefferson bottles are the most conspicuous example—has led in recent years to an explosion of counterfeits in the wine trade. In 2000, Italian authorities confiscated twenty thousand bottles of phony Sassicaia, a sought-after Tuscan red; Chinese counterfeiters have begun peddling fake Lafite. So-called “trophy” wines—best-of-the-century vintages of old Bordeaux—that were difficult to find at auction in the nineteen-seventies and eighties have reëmerged on the market in great numbers. Serena Sutcliffe, the head of Sotheby’s international wine department, jokes that more 1945 Mouton was consumed on the fiftieth anniversary of the vintage, in 1995, than was ever produced to begin with. The problem is especially acute in the United States and Asia, Sutcliffe told me, where wealthy enthusiasts build large collections very quickly. “You can go into important cellars and see a million dollars’ worth of fakes among five or six million dollars’ worth of nice stuff,” she said."

to be continued...