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Feds in New York City probe counterfeit wines

Federal authorities are investigating whether inferior bottles of wine were passed off as rare vintages worth more than $100,000 a bottle, including some portrayed as part of Thomas Jefferson's collection.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Federal authorities are investigating whether inferior bottles of wine were passed off as rare vintages worth more than $100,000 a bottle, including some portrayed as part of Thomas Jefferson's collection.

The investigation by the FBI and federal prosecutors into counterfeit wine was confirmed to The Associated Press on Tuesday by an individual familiar with the case, speaking on condition of anonymity because the probe is ongoing.

The case apparently was sparked in part by a lawsuit filed in Manhattan federal court by billionaire William Koch, who claimed he was cheated by counterfeit wines purchased from dealers and an auction house.

Christie's was among the auction houses and collectors subpoenaed to testify before a federal grand jury, said its spokesman, Rick Pike. The auction house said it is cooperating with the investigation and denied any wrongdoing.

Christie's validated the Thomas Jefferson wine cache in 1985.

Koch said he purchased five bottles of extremely rare wine for more than $500,000 — including four purported to be owned by Jefferson and discovered in a walled-up cellar in Paris. The initials "TH.J." were engraved on the bottles.

Koch claimed the bottles were found to be forgeries that were resold to him through the wine dealers.

"I am a big collector," said Koch, whose wine cellar holds 35,000 bottles. "I don't want people to think they can throw fakes at me. No one likes to be cheated."

The FBI contacted him soon after he filed his lawsuit. Koch said he has provided the agency with material compiled from his own investigation.

The federal investigation into the counterfeit wine sales was first reported by The Wall Street Journal, which said subpoenas to testify before a grand jury were sent out to rare wine collectors and some of the world's leading auction houses — including Christie's and Zachys in New York.

"Christie's will not sell any lot that we know or have reason to believe is inauthentic or counterfeit," the company said in a statement. "This applies to all property that we offer for sale around the world, from fine art to motor cars, from furniture to wine."

A Zachys spokeswoman, Barbara Strati, said that Jeff Zacharia — operator of Zachys Wine in Scarsdale, N.Y. — was not immediately available to comment.

Koch, a president of a Florida-based global mining and energy firm and a former America's Cup winner, said in an interview that he believes he was duped because his wine expertise stems from taste rather than a connoisseur's eye for the label color, cork consistency or bottle shape.

Experts recently sifted through his lavish wine collection and discovered numerous fake bottles, said Koch, a history buff who also owns a hunting rifle once used by Gen. George A. Custer.

Questions about the authenticity of the four Jefferson bottles, two from 1784 and two from 1787 with labels from Chateau Lafite and Mouton, surfaced in 2005 when Koch was asked to display his celebrated wine bottles at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

Koch said he had purchased the bottles from two wine dealers. Both vouched for their authenticity and stated they had originated from German wine merchant Hardy Rodenstock, according to his lawsuit.

Koch said Rodenstock's story appeared legitimate. In addition to the age of the bottles and Jefferson's initials, the future president was an avid wine collector who lived in Paris in the late 1700s when he was the United States Minister to France.

But experts later determined the initials were engraved by electric power tools not available at the time, according to the lawsuit. Additionally, experts at Jefferson's Virginia museum-home at Monticello said there is no historic evidence that Jefferson ever engraved his initials on any bottles of wine.

An attorney for Rodenstock, Birgit Kurtz, declined to comment because the investigation was continuing. However, Koch's lawsuit states that Rodenstock to this day contends that the Thomas Jefferson wine is "absolutely genuine and that anyone who drinks it is drinking history."

"Some resellers turn a blind eye to fake wine because there is so much money in it," Koch said. "The whole point of this is to clean up the industry."