Auction Preview: Acker Merrall & Condit, Hong Kong, May 28, 2020

Nearly everything has gone virtual, and that includes auctions. Though internet auction houses have long offered whisky fans an opportunity to bid from home, and live auctions typically include a remote-bidding component, since lockdown began across most of the world, there have been few opportunities for excitement of a rapid-fire sale with real human beings at podium controlling the rising bids. But Acker Merrall & Condit hopes to retain the heart-stopping drama of the live auction during its $2 million online spirits auction on May 28. This will be the house’s third Hong Kong-based auction dedicated to fine and rare spirits, following its debut a year ago; unlike that first foray, the quality of cataloguing for this sale has improved immensely with good, clear images and accurate descriptions of each lot.

This sale is being inventively billed as a “Live Online” auction, which requires some explanation. Most online whisky auctions operate 24-hour simultaneous bidding on all lots over a span of 7 to 10 days. That’s not the model Acker is following. With in-person bidding largely on hold throughout the world, the company is sticking with convention and running this sale as a traditional live auction, minus the on-site bidders. Handling each lot consecutively makes for a smaller auction than most of the internet auctioneers’ sales: Acker is offering 326 lots, whereas online auctions have handled over 30 times that amount. This format should deliver more of a nail-biting finish than the finger-drumming anti-climax that can characterize the end of an online auction.

Top Bottles to Look For

There are 466 bottles in total in the auction, split evenly between scotch and Japanese whisky, with a handful of exceptions. There is an eclectic assortment of scotch with a predominance of Macallan, while the Japanese selection covers all the major operational and closed distilleries. Unfortunately, many of the older Macallan bottles are Italian imports in suboptimal condition, exhibiting labels with varying degrees of foxing (spotting), sunning (darkening and fading due to sun damage), water staining, and discoloration, while a number of neck labels sit askew, potentially indicating less-than-ideal storage conditions. The remainder of the bottles, including the modern Macallans, appear to be in great condition, but interested buyers should request a condition report from the auctioneer ahead of placing any bids.

I would also advise researching auction prices from recent sales. Guide prices are set at the request of the seller after consulting the advice from the auction specialist, but for some lots in this catalogue, Acker has published ambitiously high-reaching prices. For example, it set an estimate of $14,000–$18,000 for Yamazaki 1984 when the current world record price set stands at $12,103. Meanwhile, the Macallan in Lalique 57 year old, one of the auction showpieces, has been valued at $124,000–$165,000, well above any recent realized prices.

Macallan in Lalique 57 year old: Hammer Prices since 2019

Hammer Price Date Auction House
$92,134 Jan. 6, 2020 Whisky Auctioneer
$91,074 Feb. 17, 2020 Whisky Auctioneer
$89,177 May 17, 2019 Bonhams
$82,940 Jan. 7, 2019 Whisky Auctioneer
$79,054 Aug. 16, 2019 Bonhams
$65,000 March 12, 2019 Sotheby’s
$50,000 April 19, 2020 Sotheby’s

Elsewhere, be mindful of bottles that have been falling in value since their initial prices peaked on release. Acker has valued the Macallan 50 year old 2018 release, one of only 200 bottles, at $80,000–$110,000. This does encompass the world record of $85,152 set by Scotch Whisky Auctions last year; however, only two bottles of this whisky have ever broken $80,000 at auction, and so far this year, prices have been in decline.

Macallan 50 year old 2018 release: Hammer Prices in 2020

Hammer Price Date Auction House
$67,126 Jan. 6, 2020 Whisky Auctioneer
$65,368 Jan. 5, 2020 Scotch Whisky Auctions
$65,036 Feb. 2, 2020 Whisky Auctioneer

Yet there are still plenty of desirable limited editions to acquire, including Taketsuru 25 year old (Est. $2,600–$3,500), which has risen steeply in value recently and the retro chic of the Chichibu Intergalactic series (Est. $8,000–$12,000). Or you may be lured away from whisky to cognac by the remarkable design of the Hennessy 8 (est. $60,000–$80,000).

Online bidders will need to be present with a fast, reliable connection at the precise moment their lot comes up, though absentee and phone bids are welcomed in advance. Additionally, Acker will be livestreaming the auction if you simply wish to follow the action as other people spend their money. The sale begins at 7:30 p.m. in Hong Kong: for U.S. bidders on the East Coast, that means joining the auction at breakfast time, while for those on the West Coast, it will still be the wee hours of the morning.

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