Rare Whiskies to Be Auctioned—Sight Unseen

Bidding has opened on Hart Davis Hart’s mobile-only auction of fine and rare spirits, which the Chicago-based wine auction house claims will be the largest spirits-only auction in U.S. history. Just over half of the 1,656 lots are American whiskey, roughly a third are scotch, and the remainder are Japanese and other world whiskies and miscellaneous spirits. Hart Davis Hart (HDH) predicts the mobile-only auction will realize $1 million–1.6 million over the two day sale March 14-15. Bids must be placed using the HDH app or website, with no in-person bidding.

Online auctions can be a great way for whisky lovers in far-flung locales to get hold of rare bottles, but a high level of trust is required. In the case of remote bidding, that trust relies on both the auction house’s reputation and multiple, high-quality images of every bottle, drawing attention to any damage to the labels, and providing uncensored close-ups on the closure, one of the most vulnerable areas for fake whiskies.

This HDH auction does not currently include photographs for the majority of the lots, although when Whisky Advocate contacted the auction house about this, marketing manager Sophia Springer said that they are “working to photograph all of the lots, unfortunately it’s taking longer than we expected it to. Typically, we don’t photograph every lot in our auctions, but due to the uniqueness of this sale we are working to do that. Every day we are uploading additional photos, and we hope to have them all done before the sale goes live.”

Yet when listings do include photos, almost always only a single photograph is offered—even when the lot includes multiple bottles—and there are no additional photos showing details such as fill level or damage. A single image isn’t sufficient for bidders who want to closely examine the state of the bottle, and, in any case, bidding is currently open, meaning many of the whiskies are up for sale truly sight unseen. HDH does offer additional images of “highlight lots” on a separate page, and bidders can contact the auction house for more photographs and information about particular lots by emailing bids@hdhwine.com, but these are extra steps that can be burdensome for someone interested in multiple lots.

For many whisky auction sites, including multiple professional photographs of each lot is the standard. For example, HDH is offering a 1955 Bowmore 40 year old (lot 922), but shows only single a image of the box and bottle. Scotch Whisky Auctions recently sold a bottle of the same Bowmore, and included in its listing multiple photos showing the bottle, box, and other accoutrements—including a photo of some scuffs on the box—so that potential bidders had all the necessary information to make an informed bid.

One other thing to keep in mind about the HDH auction: all lots are being sold “as is” with no returns. Sales are also subject to 19.5% buyer’s premiums and 10.25% Illinois state and local taxes. Winnings must be collected in-person from the warehouse in Chicago.

This HDH auction features some great whisky collectibles, but for this sale, my advice is to make sure you are fully prepared before registering to bid. As Whisky Advocate’s auctions and collecting expert, I’ve made some recommendations for lots to watch below, but without visual confirmation, the most important advice to apply is buyer beware.

Star Bottles

The star of the show is a bottle of Macallan 50 year old Anniversary (lot 120; estimated at $40,000–$60,000), which looks well valued, though strong competition could easily drive the price higher. The collection of Macallan Fine & Rare (lot 924–931, 933-34, est. range $13,000-$48,000) and that 1955 Bowmore 40 year old (lot 922; est. $6,500-$9,500) should rank among the top ten lots of the sale.

American Whiskeys

The classics of modern collectible American whiskey are here in abundance, with wide selections of Pappy Van Winkle, Parker’s Heritage Collection, the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection, Willett, Four Roses, Booker’s, and Elijah Craig. Much of the offering is modern, having been bottled during the current decade, so my advice for collectors is to concentrate on the earliest examples from Parker’s Heritage Collection and the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection.

Pre-Prohibition Picks

There is a small selection of pre-Prohibition whiskies including 1914 Belle of Marion whiskey (lot 449–455; est. $450-$650), 1916 Old Oscar Pepper sour mash whiskey (lot 456–458; est. $500–$750), and 1917 Cedar Brook whiskey (lot 459–461; est. $200-$300), though the condition reports indicate damp staining, and the photographs supplied aren’t sufficient to closely examine the bottles, so I would not advise bidding in advance of the sale until you have viewed the bottles in person.

Entry-Level Collectibles

For drinking and discussion, if you are new to collecting, check out the early releases and single casks from Kilchoman (lot 1228–1239; est. $50–$320), an instant collection of Laphroaig Cairdeas from 2012–2018 with a seven bottle vertical (lot 1298; est. $550-$850), and the Benromach 1976 (lot 410; est. $350-$550), which looks to be good value. The Port Ellen bottlings seem expensive compared with other auctions. Mixed lots of aged Speyside single malts (lot 434, Est. $350-$550) should not be overlooked for quality drinking and value for money. For some glorious vintage drinking, check out the early Gordon & MacPhail Connoisseur’s Choice whiskies originating in the 1960s and 1970s from Longmorn, Linkwood, Speyburn, and Imperial (lot 638, 640, 641, 644; est. range $100–$1,100); ensure that the condition and fill levels meet your approval before bidding.

Asian Whiskies

The ten lots of Taiwanese single malt whisky from Kavalan look like an excellent purchase and are very keenly priced. From Japan, I would target the Chichibu releases and the Yoichi 15 year old (lot 654 and 1599; est. $300-$450), but recommend examining the closures and color of the whisky on the Hanyu and Karuizawa bottles in person, due to the simplicity of the non-branded closures. Auctioneers have recognized that this type of bottling is vulnerable to being refilled with fake whisky.

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