In late March, Bill Koch filed a lawsuit against Christie's alleging that between 1987 and 1990, the auction house sold him at least 32 bottles of fake or suspect wines for which he paid a total of $33,737. But one of the biggest headlines coming out of the suit concerns some wines that Koch owns but didn't actually buy from Christie's. In the mid-1980s, Christie's auctioned off three of the so-called Thomas Jefferson bottles. They were procured from Hardy Rodenstock and were said to be part of a cache of wines that once belonged to the third president and that was supposedly found in a cellar in Paris. The bottles were even engraved with Jefferson's initials. In 1988, Koch paid $311,804 to buy four other Jefferson bottles from merchants in Chicago and London. He now believes that all of the Jefferson wines were fakes, and he uses the fact that Christie's sold three of them to try to establish that the company had a culture of willful disregard about questions of authenticity. In making this case, Koch goes a long way to possibly solving the mystery of the Jefferson bottles.
In litigation that he initiated against Rodenstock in 2006, Koch alleged that the bottles had been engraved with an electric power tool, which obviously would not have existed in the 18th century. (He also revealed that "Hardy Rodenstock" is a pseudonym; his real name is Meinhard Goerke.) In the complaint against Christie's, Koch claims that he has now found two people in Germany who said that they engraved some of the Jefferson bottles. Just after Koch filed his suit, Germany's Stern magazine took the story one step closer to conclusion and named the two engravers. Adding to Rodenstock's woes, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York entered a default judgment against him last month in the suit brought by Koch. Rodenstock had refused to participate in the trial.
Koch's lawsuit against Christie's, if successful, would also deal a blow to Michael Broadbent, the former head of its wine department. Broadbent auctioned off the three Jefferson bottles that Christie's sold, and he repeatedly vouched for Rodenstock and his wines. If the information contained in Koch's complaint is true, it torpedoes some of the supporting evidence that Broadbent, who is now 83, had mustered on behalf of the Jefferson bottles. Christie's sold the first of the bottles, what was purportedly a 1787 Château Lafite, in December 1985 (Malcolm Forbes purchased it for $156,000, a record price for a single bottle). According to Koch's filing, the former head of Christie's' ceramics department, cited by Broadbent as having judged the engraving on the Lafite bottle to be correct for the period, now acknowledges that he had no training in glass engraving or tool mark identification and had never been called upon to render an opinion about a wine bottle prior to examining the Lafite. Koch also asserts that a former employee of the British Library, cited by Broadbent as having affirmed that the lettering on the Lafite bottle was consistent with the late 18th century, now says that he wasn't asked to examine any of the Jefferson bottles until around 2006. In addition, Koch's suit includes correspondence between Broadbent and the Monticello-based Thomas Jefferson Foundation, which was skeptical of the Jefferson bottles from the start. The paper trail suggests that Broadbent was unwilling to let any doubts, no matter how credible, get in the way of the wine sale of the century.
Christie's denies Koch's charges and has filed a motion to dismiss the suit. Reached by e-mail, Broadbent's attorney said that Koch's allegations about her client are false. Last year, Broadbent brought a libel suit in London against Random House over a book about the Jefferson bottles saga, The Billionaire's Vinegar. Random House settled with Broadbent for an undisclosed sum and issued an apology.