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

Part 7.

Text from The New Yorker, by Patrick Radden Keefe.

"Skeptical of both parties’ tests, Elroy sought out Philippe Hubert, a French physicist who had devised a method of testing the age of wine without opening the bottle. Hubert uses low-frequency gamma rays to detect the presence of the radioactive isotope cesium 137. Unlike carbon 14, cesium 137 is not naturally occurring; it is a direct result of nuclear fallout. A wine bottled before the advent of atmospheric nuclear testing contains no cesium 137, so the test yields no results for older wines. But if a wine does contain cesium 137 the short half-life of the isotope—thirty years—allows Hubert to make a more precise estimate of its age.
Elroy flew to France, with the Jefferson bottles packed in two bulletproof, impact-resistant cases, which he carried as hand luggage. (He had obtained a carnet, a sort of passport for objects, so that he would not have to pay any duties while crossing borders with a half million dollars’ worth of wine. When airport security scrutinized the bottles between flights at Heathrow, Elroy deadpanned, “You just can’t get a good bottle of wine on the airplane.”)
The lab where Hubert and Elroy tested the wine is under a mile-high stretch of the Alps on the French-Italian border. The bottles were placed into a detector that was surrounded by ten inches of lead and were subjected to a week of tests.
Elroy was confident by now that he and his investigators were closing in on Rodenstock. “With the evidence I’m seeing from Monticello, combined with what I’m seeing from Germany, I’m ninety-nine-per-cent sure this guy is a fraud,” he recalled. When Hubert completed the tests, however, he identified no cesium 137 in the bottles. “I don’t know whether it’s 1783 or 1943,” Hubert told Elroy. But the wine predated the atomic age.
“I can’t tell you how disappointing it was,” Elroy told me. “I’ve got the historical evidence, but if we’re going to do this criminally there’s got to be more than that. I’ve got to have some kind of scientific or other evidence, or it’s not going to be prosecutable.”
On the plane back to the United States, Elroy took one of the bottles down and held it in his hands. “I’m looking at the capsule and the glass itself,” he said. “I run my hand over the engraving. I can feel it. And then I think, This is a tool mark. This was done with a tool.”
When Elroy landed, he called the F.B.I.’s laboratory, in Quantico, Virginia. The lab’s ballistics experts specialize in tool-mark examinations, noting the telltale impression that a gun barrel leaves on a bullet, or a screwdriver makes when it pries open a window. The lab gave Elroy the names of some recently retired specialists. He also visited the Corning Museum of Glass, in upstate New York, where he was referred to an expert glass engraver, Max Erlacher, an Austrian-born craftsman who had done work for a number of American Presidents.
Several weeks later, Elroy hired Erlacher and a retired F.B.I. tool expert named Bill Albrecht to examine the bottles at Bill Koch’s estate in Palm Beach. Elroy wanted to know whether the writing on the bottles had been done with a copper wheel, the sort of tool used in the eighteenth century to engrave glass. In Jefferson’s time, the copper wheel, usually operated by a foot pedal, spun in a stationary position, and the engraver moved the bottle around it.
Erlacher and Albrecht inspected the bottles, examining the ridges of the engraving under a powerful magnifying glass. Letters engraved by a copper wheel tend to vary in thickness, like the strokes of a fountain pen. But the lettering on the bottles was strangely uniform, and it slanted in a way that a copper-wheel engraving would not. The initials could not have been made in the eighteenth century, Erlacher concluded. Instead, they looked as if they might have been done with a handheld tool like a dentist’s drill or a Dremel—a tool powered by electricity. This was “a quantum leap,” Elroy thought. As it happened, he had a Dremel tool at home. “I get a bottle of wine, and I screw with it,” he recalled. “And in an hour I can engrave ‘Th.J.’ ”
On August 31, 2006, Bill Koch filed a civil complaint against Rodenstock (“a.k.a. Meinhard Goerke”) in New York federal court. Although it was the Chicago Wine Company and Farr Vintners that had sold Koch the wines, the complaint alleged that Rodenstock had orchestrated an “ongoing scheme” to defraud wine collectors. “Rodenstock is charming and debonair,” the complaint read. “He is also a con artist.”
Before filing the suit, Koch’s lawyers were interested to see whether Rodenstock would acknowledge a personal connection to Koch’s Jefferson bottles (given that Koch had not bought them directly from him), and whether he might effectively continue the alleged fraud by still insisting that they were real. So Koch faxed Rodenstock a cordial letter, in January, 2006, saying that he was trying to authenticate his Jefferson wines, and asking Rodenstock to send a letter indicating that he had “every reason to believe” that the bottles “once belonged to Thomas Jefferson.” Rodenstock replied on January 10th, saying, “The Jefferson bottles are absolutely genuine and . . . come from a walled up cellar in Paris.” He pointed out that Christie’s had vouched for the bottles’ authenticity, and enclosed a copy of Bonani’s report. “You will surely understand that the discussions on the genuineness of the Jefferson bottles [are] herewith closed for me,” he wrote. "

to be continued...