Image: Really old cognac
Francois Mori  /  AP
This bottle of Vieux Cognac sold Monday for $37,000 at an auction in Paris.
updated 12/8/2009 4:04:10 PM ET 2009-12-08T21:04:10

A bottle of Vieux Cognac dating back to 1788 — the year before the French Revolution — sold at a Paris auction of wine and spirits for $37,000.

Paris' landmark Tour d'Argent restaurant has cleaned out its cellar, considered one of the best and biggest in the world, putting 18,000 bottles up for auction. The two-day sale, which ended Tuesday, brought in more than $2.2 million, the Piasa auction house said.

Wine-lovers from China to Russia to the United States bid for a chance at rare treasures. To put things in perspective, the pricey Vieux Cognac Le Clos Griffier dates back to 1788, when Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were still living at the royal palace at Versailles and would not be guillotined for another five years.

Wines can't withstand the passing years as well as spirits like cognac, and the reds and whites on sale were younger and netted more modest prices. Twelve half-bottles of 1989 Chateau Haut-Brion went for a total of $8,900. A lot of six bottles of Vosne-Romanee from 1988 netted nearly $9,300.

The 427-year-old restaurant donated proceeds from the $37,000 bottle of 1788 cognac to the Association Petits Princes, a French charity that grants the wishes of ailing children. The Tour d'Argent, which means "Tower of Silver," is keeping the rest of the money from the sale, which may be used later for renovations. Two additional bottles of the historic 1788 cognac sold for $31,000 and $27,300.

Prices 'through the roof'
For Helena Puolakka and her husband Tuukka, who had visited from London for the day in the hope of picking up a bottle or two, it was a great disappointment.

"We have been going to the Tour d'Argent to eat for many years and we know they have wines there that you cannot find anywhere else in the world," Helena, a chef from Finland, told the U.K.'s Guardian newspaper. "But, at these prices, it's cheaper to buy the wine in the restaurant."

Her husband said: "To be honest, the prices have gone through the roof. They are ridiculous."

Despite the sale of thousands of bottles, there are still about 432,000 bottles stacked floor to ceiling under the restaurant in a succession of caverns. The auction's goal was to cut down on wines the restaurant has in multiple so it can vary and modernize its selection.

The Left Bank restaurant, known for pressed duck and views of Notre Dame, dates back to 1582. It was once the summit of French gastronomy, attracting royalty, politicians and film stars.

But recent years have brought tougher times. Longtime owner Claude Terrail died in 2006, and his 29-year-old son Andre now runs it. The restaurant, where a prix fixe lunch menu costs more than $95 and a tasting menu at dinner goes for $235, long held three Michelin stars but is now down to one.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Famed wine cellar opens doors to highest bidder

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    >>> stop a headache...

    >>> we started the broadcast talking about the economy. finally tonight, falling on hard times sometimes means having to part with something you love, selling it to raise extra money rhaps. turns out that's true for a legendary restaurant that lost two of its three stars and is now looking to get back in the game. this week it put a price on a priceless collection. our report from paris and nbc's donna friesen.

    >> reporter: paris at christmas can be a shopper's paradise, but for wine lovers, there was only one place to be this week. an auction of wine from one of the world's finest collections. 18,000 bottles went under the hammer. attracting a huge crowd of both connoisseurs and novices, all hoping to buy a little bit of a paris legend.

    >> i think it's one of the greatest wine sales i've ever been to.

    >> reporter: what is so exciting about it to you?

    >> because it's latour nargen.

    >> pleasing the palates of everyone from queen elizabeth to jfk and inspiration for the movie of "ratatouille." minus the rats, of course. it's down in the cellar with the somelier keeps the treasures. bottles, many extremely rare, stacked from floor to ceiling. this petris went for $3,200.

    >> i'm a little bit sad to see it go.

    >> reporter: not to worry, there is still plenty left. you can't go wrong choosing a wine here, but you might need help because the wine list is 400 pages long and weighs about 18 pounds.

    >> this is the 1788 cognac.

    >> reporter: the oldest bottle sold was produced before the french revolution and went for $37,000. the man who bought it promises to share it.

    >> can i give you a list of tames?

    >> latour dargen's motto is nothing should taking seriously is pleasure.

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