Wines sold as rare may be fake

Federal prosecutors and FBI's art-fraud unit look into alleged fraud in the sale of bogus bottles, newspaper says.

NEW YORK ( -- Federal prosecutors looking into allegations of counterfeit wine sales have sent subpoenas to rare-wine collectors and to some of the world's leading auction houses, including Christie's in London and Zachys in New York, according to a published report.

The Wall Street Journal reports that the art-fraud unit of the Federal Bureau of Investigation also is involved in the probe and has conducted interviews.

The paper reports that if the auction houses, collectors or importers knowingly sold counterfeit wines even when they had doubts about their authenticity, those sales could be prosecuted under federal fraud statutes.

Officials at the auction houses told the paper they go to great lengths to ensure the authenticity of the bottles they sell.

"We piece together the history of each bottle of wine, its provenance, ownership and appearance," Richard Brierley, wine auctioneer at Christie's, told the Journal.

The rise in prices has increased the incentive of some to try to sell counterfeit wines, he said.

"In the past, it was only the most rare vintages. But with more wines falling into the $1,000-plus category, there is more opportunity in counterfeiting," he told the paper.

The paper reports whether auction houses and merchants can be held liable for counterfeits provided to them by others could be a big issue in any prosecution arising from the federal probe.

William Koch, president of closely held Oxbow Corp., has also brought civil suits alleging that a German wine merchant, Hardy Rodenstock, forged bottles of wine he claimed had belonged to Thomas Jefferson. The paper reports that Rodenstock denied the claims and deflected responsibility to the merchants who sold them directly to Koch.

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