Why Is Bonhams Misdating This Bottle?
Since the new Bonhams NY auction went online last week, whisky enthusiasts have been drooling at one of the crown jewels: a never-before-seen bottle of Ardbeg, dated circa 1900.
Closer inspection shows the fill level isn't so great (actually it's awful), but still, it's one hell of a cool piece. Word is that Ardbeg themselves may bid for it. After all, it would be a great addition to their collection, not to mention that the liquid inside it dates from the 1880s!
Except for one thing: it doesn't. Bonhams has mis-dated the bottle by over a quarter-century.
I spend a lot of time researching rare whisky bottles. We get frequent inquiries from people who discover stuff in a basement, receive bottles from relatives, and so on. Experience has taught me that no matter how credible the provenance is or what the owner claims, a little inspection and research often proves otherwise.
That's why a big red flag flew up when I saw this lot. Beginning in 1934, almost all US liquor bottles were required to be exactly embossed with:
"FEDERAL LAW FORBIDS SALE OR REUSE OF THIS BOTTLE." This continued through 1964.
To clarify, it is not possible for any bottle made prior to the repeal of Prohibition (Dec. 1933) to bear this phrase. The law it refers to didn't exist yet.
That statement is on the "1900 Ardbeg." I emailed Bonhams, explaining, "Basic methods of glass bottle dating indicate this is post-prohibition." I didn't specify why -- I figured they'd made a mistake/typo, and that to specifically point out the error to experts would be insulting.
But a part of me also worried, well, maybe Bonhams doesn't quite know what they're doing. I'd heard grumblings along that line before.
As I feared, Bonhams' response showed no knowledge of glass bottle dating. I'd even pointed out that the Illinois tax stamp on the bottle indicated a more likely era -- the stamp reads 1938. And the second tax stamp on top of the bottle (red, federal issue) also indicates a 1930s or later date.
I received an email response from Bonham's US whiskey specialist:
"I spoke to the owner of the bottle, and he is adamant the bottle is dated properly." He asked me for documentation that the bottle was of a later period.
Rather shocked, I emailed back and explained the "FEDERAL LAW FORBIDS" law.
Response? "[T]his glass designation is worth researching… I will certainly look into this glass issue and pass on your assertions to the powers that be."
"Look into" my "assertions?" A simple search for "Federal Law Forbids" gives a flood of documentation.
I emailed back with links to bottle-dating sites. Expert's response: "I've got 2 weeks to figure it out."
But... no, you don't. The auction's already online. People are registering bids right now.
Why the resistance?
Exasperated, I sent a PDF of a New York Times article from July 15, 1934, documenting the then-new "Forbids" law. Surely, this would provide the elusive evidence needed to crack this brainbuster of a mystery.
Response: "Ardbeg will be amended to: 'early 20th century.'"
As of this publication, the date still reads 1900.
But even if it is changed, does 1938 really qualify as "early 20th century?" Early 20th century is Teddy Roosevelt's presidency. It's Titanic sinking. It's pre-prohibition. 1938 is well after prohibition and a generation later than what I'd consider "early 20th century."
For reasons like Luc Timmermans' auction fiasco last year (he was sold what turned out to be opened bottles), when I first contacted Bonhams I explained the purpose of my email:
"Whisky clubs worldwide are becoming more and more circumspect of auctioneers. There are suspicions of deliberate misinformation passed along under the guise of 'mistakes' and intentional omission of important details. I wanted to give you a heads-up before more conspiracy theories start to gestate."
Think how bad mis-estimates and inaccurate descriptions are for us, the whisky enthusiasts. Those estimates and descriptions become public information, and many whisky collectors -- particularly newer ones -- view them as "truth." What the big auctioneers say becomes a matter of record. That raises whisky prices as a whole, which lets auctioneers increase valuations on the next auction, and the cycle continues forever. They win. We lose.
In response to this, I imagine that Bonhams might point out that their auctions are accompanied by a litany of disclaimers. So I'll do it for them (directly copied from Bonhams' website, emphasis added):
"The content displayed via the Online Bidding service may contain inaccuracies and typographical errors and we do not warrant the accuracy or completeness of the content or that any defects will be corrected. Any reliance on any such content, advice, statement, or other information shall be at your sole risk."
And that says it all.
Posted June 13 2012
[Addendum: Many of you have pointed out that tax stamps can be affixed long after bottling (for a number of reasons, some illegal). I had discussed this with Bonhams. But in this case, we can look at those stamps as part of the overall picture for arriving at accurate dating. If this whisky is indeed from 1900, someone would have had to have time-traveled to 1934, procured the glass bottle, time-traveled back to 1900, filled the bottle, sold the bottle, and 38 years later stuck tax stamps on it. Seems unlikely.]
UPDATE 6/18: The bottle was briefly listed with a "WITHDRAWN" notice and has now been removed from Bonhams' website entirely.