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

Part Four.



Text from The New Yorker, by Patrick Radden Keefe.




"In legal disputes, Koch has occasionally relied on the services of a tenacious retired F.B.I. agent named Jim Elroy. During his law-enforcement career, Elroy worked on many fraud investigations, and when questions about the Jefferson bottles arose he told Koch, “If you want your money back, I’ll get it.”
That wasn’t enough for Koch. “I want to lock him up,” he told Elroy. “Saddle up.” (Koch’s enthusiasm for cowboy culture has rubbed off on Elroy. He describes his boss as “the new sheriff in town”; his cell-phone ring tone is the whistled theme from “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.”)
Elroy is in his sixties and has a weathered, tanned face and a conspiratorial smile. He’s a bit of a raconteur, and when we met for lunch recently he related the details of his investigation in the studied cadences of someone who had told the story before. “Cases either get better or they get worse,” he told me. “This one just kept getting better.” From the beginning, Koch was interested in suing Rodenstock, Elroy explained, but he also wanted Elroy to prepare a criminal case against him which could ultimately be handed to federal authorities. Elroy was invigorated by Koch’s ambitions. “This investigation has all the earmarks of an F.B.I. investigation,” he told me. “Only with the best people in the world available instantly. And with none of the bureaucracy.” He estimated that since 2005 Koch has spent more than a million dollars on the Rodenstock case—twice what he paid for the wine.
As Elroy and his team—a former Scotland Yard inspector in England, a former MI5 agent in Germany, and several wine experts in Europe and the United States—began their investigation, in 2005, they learned from the staff at Monticello that doubts about the authenticity of the Jefferson wines date back to the auction of the original bottle. Broadbent had approached Monticello in the fall of 1985, to inquire about references to wine in some of Jefferson’s letters. A researcher named Cinder Goodwin, who had spent fifteen years studying Jefferson’s voluminous papers, responded to Broadbent that November, expressing skepticism. “Jefferson’s daily account book, virtually all of his letters, his banker’s statements, and miscellaneous internal French customs forms survive for this period and mention no 1787 vintages,” she wrote. When a reporter from the Times reached Goodwin, before the auction, to ask about the connection, she noted that whereas the initials on Rodenstock’s bottles were written “Th.J.,” in his correspondence Jefferson tended to use a colon—“Th:J.”
Broadbent did not mention these doubts in the catalogue, and the Times story did not dissuade the bidders. (In an article published in this magazine at the time, Broadbent told a reporter that he found “no proof” but plenty of circumstantial evidence—“masses of it”—that Jefferson had owned the bottle.) Shortly after the auction, Goodwin prepared a research report on the bottles, in which she concluded that although they could very well be authentically eighteenth century, the specific connection with Jefferson was not borne out by the historical record. She was at pains to insist that she was not questioning the good faith of Rodenstock or Broadbent, but she wondered, “Were there not Thomases, Theodores, or Theophiles, and Jacksons, Joneses, and Juliens who also had a taste for fine Bordeaux wine, and who would have been resident in Paris?” She pointed out that historical records document the inhabitants at various addresses in Paris. If Rodenstock would reveal the address where he discovered the wine, “a proper connection might be made.”
Soon a flurry of letters from Rodenstock began arriving at Monticello. Though he speaks passable English, the letters were in German; a Monticello tour guide translated them. On December 28, 1985, Rodenstock wrote, referring to Goodwin, that “one should courteously keep back one’s dubious and unfounded remarks and one shouldn’t make oneself important in front of the press.” Dan Jordan, Monticello’s executive director, wrote back, protesting that Goodwin was a highly regarded Jefferson scholar, and that, unlike Rodenstock or Christie’s, she had no financial interest in the determination of authenticity.
“Can you study ‘Jefferson’ at university?” Rodenstock replied. “She doesn’t know anything about wine in connection with Jefferson, doesn’t know what bottles from the time frame 1780-1800 look like, doesn’t know how they taste.”