Costly Thy Habit as Thy Purse Can Buy
March 25, 2012
There were only six known copies of Shakespeare’s First Folio in private hands in late 2001, when Abel Berland elected to auction his copy at Chrstie’s along with hundreds of other rare books and manuscripts. It had taken Berland decades to assemble his collection of English literature, philosophy texts, and incunabula—books from the first half-century after the invention of the printing press—and he had previously resolved not to part with them in his lifetime. He changed his mind and decided to sell them off, he said, because “I owe it to the next generation.” He quoted the nineteenth century bibliophile Robert Hoe, who had explained his own decision to auction his legendary collection with the rhetorical question, “If the great collections of the past had not been sold, where would I have found my books?” Berland said he felt a similar responsibility to “nourish the cycle,” as he put it. “Someone has to replenish the supply; if not me, then who?”
Nicholas Basbanes, from whose books on book collecting I pulled this story, dubbed the hobby “a gentle madness.” That gentlemanly respect for the cycle in the rare-book world struck me as a dramatic contrast to the latest scandal to pollute the wine world, where the bequest to future generations from the biggest hoarder of the rare and the great over the last decade is not so much a First Folio but a jeroboam-sized flaming bag of shit on our collective doorstep. If those non-existent Ponsot wines Acker-Merrall tried to auction off a few years ago were the tip of the iceberg, federal authorities seem to have found the iceberg. His name is Rudy Kurniawan, also known, as the feds’ complaint helpfully reminds us, as “Dr. Conti,” and now known as inmate no. 62470-112.
Like most people, I had never heard of Mr. Kurniawan or Dr. Conti or whatever else he calls himself until he initiated an infamous thread on Robert Parker’s discussion board in 2004 headlined, “Last weekend where I tried to kill John Kapon with legendary wines!!” Those more plugged in to the auction circuit surely knew of him sooner. A 2006 L.A. Times puff piece reported that he had been spending over a million dollars a month at wine auctions over “the last several years,” or nearly as long as he could legally drink. “For many years, he was the biggest buyer of fine and rare wines on the planet and basically cornered much of the mega-market,” Kapon later posted on Parker’s board. During that period, sightings were regularly reported of Rudy holding court in restaurants and treating his friends and those aspiring to befriend him to generous quantities of priceless wine, the sheer number of bottles never seeming to militate against the necessity of brandishing a few magnums or methuselahs or other ostentatiously sized bottles. But nobody ever reported at the time that Rudy was having the empty bottles shipped back to him for reincarnation as future auction consignments. That allegation is only one of many bombshells to come out of the FBI investigation. The stacks of homemade Lafite, Lafleur, and Petrus labels seized during the search of his house is another.
They were thick stacks. There was never a whole lot of 1947 Lafleur to go around. If you’ve ever seen one, it seems a safe bet it came from Dr. Conti’s kitchen.
The revelations and arrest have triggered a mass outbreak of schadenfreude of the type last seen when Martha Stewart and Leona Helmsley were facing hard time. But I am going to go out on a limb and speculate that very little of it has to do with righteous anger over the alleged fraud operation, the same way nobody ever really cared what Martha knew or when she knew it about ImClone stock. However many Romanée-Contis Dr. Conti doctored, only a small proportion of the people remarking on the story could have been buying bottles expensive enough to come within the potential victim class. The rest of us have felt our wallets lighten in a more indirect fashion, and that’s what most of the schadenfreude and righteous anger is about.
Reflect on what Kapon said about Kurniawan: he cornered the market. Cornered the market! That 2006 article also reported: “Since he started buying, prices for rare wine have skyrocketed. As he stepped up his acquisitions in 2004, a dozen other ultra-rich buyers emerged to compete with him for the best bottles. And the market for old wine exploded.” The article quoted Allen Meadows as stating that older Burgundies “are selling for 20 times what I used to pay only a couple of years ago” and reported that Meadows “believe[d] Kurniawan’s heavy buying has been a significant factor.” The effect was not limited to people buying $75,000 cases of 1971 Romanée-Conti. It trickled down to new releases and less-grand wines and assured that unless you were willing and able to spend Rudy money, you would never get the chance to drink them again. With respect to the prices for the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, it’s not much of an exaggeration to say that there is Before Rudy and After Rudy. The “After Rudy” price of the Domaine’s Grands-Echezeaux is roughly the same as the “Before Rudy” price of the Romanée-Conti. “After Rudy” Echezeaux costs more than “Before Rudy” La Tâche. In Bordeaux, Château Lafleur used to cost less than a tenth the price of Petrus, but Rudy took a fancy to it and now they’re both in the $1,000-a-bottle club.
The philosopher John Locke had a theory that man is morally free to pluck something out of nature and make it his own so long as he leaves “enough, and as good,” behind for others. Rudy’s bankroll, wherever it came from, was apparently enough to make even the most treasured wines as freely available to him as a fruit plucked off a tree. But he never evidenced any regard for others who might have shared his passion, or left enough, and as good, behind for them.
If he also felt himself entitled to flood the market with counterfeit wines in order to finance his own habit, that adds a more sinister variation to the theme—but it’s the same theme underneath it all. The image of Rudy sitting alone in his kitchen consuming one treasure after another like a feudal lord exercising his droit du signeur and then recycling the defiled bottles for auction sales borders on sociopathic. For a generation hence the awkward scent of a California pinot noir wafting from a legitimate DRC bottle will serve as a mocking proclamation that Rudy got to it first.
It actually compounds the offense that his appreciation for wine seems to have been genuine. Even the fraudsters hawking fake Vermeers or Van Goghs didn’t destroy the originals to make their copies.
Every hobby has its scoundrels, but some are classier than others. One of the “collectors” profiled in Basbanes’ series is Stephen Blumberg, whom the FBI tracked down after he’d stolen over 23,000 valuable books from libraries and curated collections in 42 states. Basbanes’ account is almost sympathetic, because he senses that the mania that drove Blumberg to serial thievery is the same mania that drove others to cultivate legitimate collections. Blumberg confessed to Basbanes that he’d rationalized what he’d done as acts of rescue. Surely some of them had rested in anonymity before being whisked away to a place at least one person would cherish them. His agony when the feds seized and—worse—recategorized his books should ring with familiarity to anyone who shares the collector gene. One of the conditions of his bail was that he not enter any museum or library. I noticed that one of the original conditions for Rudy Kurniawan’s bail, which has since been stayed given the flight risk, is that “the defendant is not to consume alcohol.” For a moment I almost felt some sympathy for the devil. If any part of the show he put on over the last decade was genuine, the prospect of months or years without wine must be striking him as an unbearable agony. But the rest of us are better off for it. Rudy’s already consumed more than his fair share.
For further reading/viewing:
- A two-hour program on the Abel Berland Rare Book Library Sale at Christie’s, on C-SPAN’s BookTV.
- Nicholas Basbanes’ A Gentle Madness and Patience and Fortitude at Amazon.com.
- Mike Steinberger’s indispensable shoe-leather reporting on the Rudy affair, with links to the complaint and smoking gun(s).
- The epic Wine Berserkers Rudy thread (including a copy of Rudy’s original Parker board post), for those with time to spare who haven’t relished every word already.