Sotheby’s Whisky Auction Sees High Number of Unsold Bottles

The Timeless Whisky Collection sold for a combined hammer price of $1.59 million at Sotheby’s, New York on September 23rd, against pre-sale estimates of $1.55–$2.15 million, leaving 1 in 5 bottles unsold. The Macallan Six Pillars collection and Lalique experience attracted the highest bid with a hammer price of $450,000, equivalent to paying $100/ml for these rare spirits. Across the sale, 90 lots, or 23% of sold lots, exceeded their high estimates, though none of these included the top 10 highest sales (see below). At $900, WhistlePig Rye 10 year old 100 proof was the best performing bottle relative to its estimate, attracting a hammer price 3.6 times more than the high estimate.

The median hammer price of a winning lot was $1,100, but an unforeseen 22% of scotch lots, totaling 106 bottles, failed to sell—highly unusual for Sotheby’s which has averaged 97% of lots sold in each whisky sale since 2019. At the Three Continents Collection Part V auction at Sotheby’s, New York in July, only 15 bottles of single malt scotch failed to sell, just 3% of all lots. The unsold whisky in the Timeless Collection was expected to fetch $184,850–$239,100; costing Sotheby’s up to $60,000 in lost buyer’s premiums. In the unsold group, high-value bottles of Loch Lomond 50 year old, Fettercairn 50 year old, Bunnahabhain Eich Bhana Lìr 46 year old, and the 6-bottle Gordon & MacPhail Strathisla Collection 1954–1964 could be found, as well as closed distillery whiskies from Port Ellen, Littlemill, and Glen Mhor. None of the small number of listings by The Last Drop Distillers, Fettercairn, That Boutique-y Whisky Company, or Tobermory/Ledaig found buyers.

With leftover bottles of Ardbeg, Bowmore, Port Ellen, Brora, and Springbank at Sotheby’s, should scotch whisky collectors be concerned? Analysis of the unsold lots suggests that factors including the high number of independent bottlings, the value of those bottlings on the secondary market versus their original retail prices, and the number of duplicate bottlings may have played a part. Some 80% of the unsold lots were independent bottlings. The results also suggest some reluctance by auction attendees to engage with certain distilleries and bottlers, even when there are scarce bottlings, such as 50 year olds, on offer. “Fifty-four percent of the unsold lots were bottled by either Douglas Laing or Hunter Laing, who it seems don’t have a strong position in the secondary market in the USA,” commented Jonny Fowle, Sotheby’s head of whisky & spirits, North America & EMEA, after the sale. “Some other bottles, such as Fettercairn 50 year old, have historically struggled at auction, especially when compared to the relatively high original retail price. While the whisky market continues to gain value, this is not true of every bottle and there are some that will have to be sold at a loss to be sold at all.”

The live auction took place on a day when there was a significant downturn in international stocks, bonds, and currencies, with the pound-dollar exchange rate dropping to $1.08, creating attractive opportunities for those living stateside to make substantial savings by buying scotch from the UK. This currency volatility will have created uncertainty among overseas bidders trying to place bids in U.S. dollars. The unsold lots from this single-owner collection may be returned to the owner in California, or we may see them again at a later date; sometimes auction houses work with the seller to reduce the estimates to attract new bidders.

There was better news for other styles of whisky, while interest in rare cognacs was also strong. Although only representing a small part of the collection, American and Japanese whiskies sold for 6% above their category estimates with 100% sell-through rates. The highest hammer prices in these categories were $4,800 for a bottle of A.H. Hirsch Reserve 1974 16 year old, and $38,000 for the three-bottle Karuizawa 1981 Budo Collection set. The combined hammer price on American whiskeys was $50,450, against pre-sale estimates of $36,100–$47,600, and $113,800 for Japanese whiskies, against pre-sale estimates of $79,300–$107,000.

While this sale was lower than Sotheby’s, New York normal high standards, they are not alone in seeing market conditions get tougher for sellers. Bonhams, London failed to sell half a million dollars worth of rare whisky during their Fine Whisky & Spirits sale on September 29th. Only 57% of their whisky lots sold, generating a combined hammer price of £208,400 ($230,282), with a median hammer price of only £700 ($774). Notably, many of the highest-valued whiskies were among the 100 lots of whisky that failed to sell, including a Macallan 50 year old. These unsold lots at Bonhams were valued at £408,940­–£517,490 ($451,879–$571,827) in total, over double the hammer price of the whiskies that sold.

Sotheby’s next whisky auction, titled “Finest and Rarest Spirits,” takes place in Hong Kong on October 4th. Sotheby’s, London is also taking bids on the oldest-ever scotch whisky released until October 5th: Bottle #3 of the Macallan 1940 The Reach 81 year old has been consigned directly from the Macallan Estate, and the sale features an estate experience that includes a taste of the liquid. Proceeds from the sale will benefit the Macallan Artisan Apprenticeship Fund launched in 2021.

The Timeless Whisky Collection: 10 Highest Hammer Prices

Bottling Hammer Price Low Estimate High Estimate
1 The Macallan in Lalique Six Pillars Collection (6 bottles) $450,000 $400,000 $600,000
2 The Macallan in Lalique 72 year old Genesis Decanter $75,000 $70,000 $90,000
3 Black Bowmore The Last Cask 50 year old $50,000 $38,000 $55,000
4 The Macallan 1949 50 year old Millennium Decanter $40,000 $30,000 $40,000
5 Karuizawa Budo Collection 1981 (3 bottles) $38,000 $30,000 $40,000
6 The Macallan 40 year old 2017 release $30,000 $20,000 $30,000
7 Bowmore 1961 50 year old $30,000 $32,000 $50,000
8 The Macallan Fine & Rare 1938 31 year old $28,000 $26,000 $35,000
9 Gordon & MacPhail Private Collection Glenlivet 1943 70 year old $24,000 $22,000 $30,000
10 Ardbeg Double Barrel 1974 (2 bottles) $24,000 $22,000 $30,000

More From Auctions