When you have an itch, it’s best to scratch it

by Tom Fiorina on November 12, 2013


Not the brandy that I was after, but still pretty good stuff…an old bottle of Denis Mounie Cognac.

When time permits, I will occasionally attend an antique auction in Toulouse, the largest city nearby to us in southwestern France. I’ve always enjoyed auctions. Even when I don’t buy anything, it’s interesting to see the items being auctioned, and to watch the bidders, which can range from young couples furnishing their first apartment to wizened collectors bent on getting that last piece to complete a life-long collection.

I rarely come home with anything, mostly because we really don’t need any furniture or paintings, but mainly because many of the bidders in attendance at the auctions at provincial cities such as Toulouse are dealers from Paris who can resell their acquisitions for a tidy profit in the capital city. What they consider a “discount” price is way above what I usually want to pay on any auctioned items.

But now and then I get lucky. Like the auction four or five years back of the contents of the wine cellar of a recently deceased Armagnac producer. Barrels of Armagnac from the 1970s and 1980s had been bottled to settle the man’s estate, and I was able to obtain a half-dozen of them for around €30 a bottle, one-half to one-third of the normal price for Armagnac of this age.

And then there was the time in 1997, when we were living in Paris, when then President Jacque Chirac called a snap parliamentary election, gambling that French voters would return his center-right coalition government with a sufficient majority to join Germany in launching the common European Union currency.  This special Sunday election coincided with an enormous auction that had taken months to organize in a warehouse just outside of Paris. Not being able to vote, I was one of the few in attendance the day of the auction. The auctioneer was literally in tears as item after item went for far below his price estimate.

I bid on, and obtained, several nice antique chests, and a set of 19th-century, carved stone bowls from India. This was all my budget would permit, and, besides, I was in a small Peugeot that wouldn’t have held much more in the return trip to Paris. Soon it was my turn to cry, as I watched a massive, oak butcher block table that I still envision as being the central point of a dream French country kitchen going for a song, along with dozens of seven-foot-tall walnut armoires, and multiple, stunningly-carved Louis XVI-style commodes, buffets, armchairs, and complete living room and dining room sets. Had I been better prepared—and better financed, I could have filled a shipping container with enough French antiques to stock more than one Greenwich Village antique shops.

I studied the auction catalog for several hours before heading to the auction, which was held on a weekday evening. The majority of the 277 auction lots (with each lot consisting of from one to six bottles) were from Bordeaux. Which makes sense considering wine collector tastes and the proximity of Bordeaux to Toulouse. There was a good bit of wine from Burgundy, a few bottles of age-worthy wine from southwestern France–such as Chateau Montus in Madiran, some Champagne, a large number of Banyuls and Maury fortified wines, a great number of bottles of Whiskey, and, something that really caught my eye–a dozen or so bottles of Armagnac. Regular readers of this blog will have noticed my affection for this brandy from the Armagnac region, which is just to the west of Toulouse. What particularly caught my attention in the catalog was a magnum of 1955 Bas Armagnac from the Domaine Le Basque in its original coffret box. So my strategy was this: bid on several bottles of Bordeaux from our three sons’ birth years (1996, 1998 and 2001) and that bottle of Armagnac made in my birth year.

The auction room was about half full when I arrived. This made me believe that I might have a good chance of purchasing some of the bottles on my wish list. What I didn’t know, but soon realized, was that there were as many, if not more, bidders who had placed advance bids, or who were on the telephone bidding, or who were even using the auction house’s website to watch the auction and to place bids.

I had searched the Internet, using websites like wine-searcher.com, to get an estimate of the value of the bottles that I wanted to bid on. The first 100 or so lots were bottles of Bordeaux wine from the 1950s through the 1980s. Right away, I saw that telephone bidders were snapping up the really good bottles, such as a 1958 Chateau Margaux and a 1994 Chateau Petrus. I overheard one of the auction house assistants mention “New York,” so I took that to mean that a fellow American was filling his wine cellar via Toulouse. And each bottle was going for a 25-50% premium over the catalog price estimates (€260 for the Margaux and €880 for the Petrus).

In between the machine-gun rapid French of the auctioneer, I overheard some comments about “les chinois” as the auction hammer sounded for several bottles of 1995 Chateau Margaux that went for around €300 a bottle. The Parisian dealers that I’m used to bidding against in auctions were soon forgotten as I realized that my competition this time was international.


“Le jeune” and sidekick

And that just-mentioned auction hammer was descending almost as fast as the auctioneer was talking. With over 270 lots to be auctioned during the three-hour auction, almost two lots were being sold each minute. It was a strain just to keep up with the auctioneer’s rapid pace. My French, though certainly adequate for everyday conversations, is not anywhere perfect. Which is a shame, as some of the auctioneer’s commentary, which I was only catching in bits and pieces, was truly inspired. There was an older bearded man in the back who persistently called out bids that were ridiculously below the auctioneer’s suggested opening bid. The auctioneer began calling him “Le jeune” (literally, in English, “the young man”). From their friendly banter, I took this to mean that they knew each other, or at least the man was a regular at the wine auctions. Most likely, I thought, judging from the quantity of bottles that he was bidding on, he was a dealer reselling the wine. Seated next to him was a younger man, and the two of them spoke in stage-whisper voices loud enough to carry to the front of the room. This finally elicited a “Je vais vous séparer” comment from the auctioneer, delivered in a deliciously sarcastic school-master tone.

We were arriving at the one-hour mark, and some of the 1996, 1998 and 2001 Bordeaux bottles were about to be auctioned. And, as in all of the auctions that I attend, I began at some point to imagine that my nose was itchy. For those who have never attended an auction, I need to explain that many of the bidders, in order to not allow their competition in the room to know that they’re bidding, will make gestures like a nod of the head, a slight motion with their hand, or even just a quick touch of their ear or nose to let the auctioneer know that they are bidding. I sometimes literally sit on my hands to avoid psychosomatically scratching my nose at the wrong moment, unintentionally buying something I have no desire to purchase.

The Bordeaux that I had planned on putting away for my sons’ 21st birthdays or their weddings went to either New York or Hong Kong, as did the bottle of 1955 Armagnac. I nearly got the magnum of Armagnac, but it went for €160, less than the €200 estimated price, but more than the €100 price limit that I had set for myself.


Could it really be Bob? Nah.

Bottles of Banyuls and Maury fortified wines seemed to be the only affordable bargains at the auction; maybe I should stock some of that away, as it does age well. And then there were some bottles of older Grenache wine from the Roussillon that might be worth putting away for a special occasion.

But €160 for a magnum of 1955 Armagnac, in retrospect, doesn’t sound that expensive. If only my nose had itched at the right moment I might have purchased it. And if any overseas participants in auctions in Toulouse are reading this, have a heart when another bottle of 1955 Armagnac goes up for auction.

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