Are Empty Wine Bottles on eBay Being Used for Counterfeiting?

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One of the most thought-provoking papers at this year’s meeting of the American Association of Wine Economics was presented by Günter Schamel, a professor at the Free University of Bolzano.

Schamel’s study, which is still in progress, has thus far looked at a data set of 260 eBay auctions of empty wine bottles. In his model, the most powerful predictive variable — explaining both the incidence of sale and the final auction price of an empty bottle — is “the price a full and presumably authentic bottle could potentially fetch in the marketplace.”

Schamel argues that this is “powerful evidence that the empty bottles might go on to be refilled. Why otherwise would someone want to pay more than 100 euros for an empty bottle of 1982 Chateau Lafite-Rothschild rated with 100 Parker points? Presumably, because it is worth a lot more once it is filled up again.”

Certainly, notwithstanding a recent incident in which a customer at a London restaurant sent back a ?18,000 magnum of 1961 Château Pétrus claiming that it was counterfeit, our wine experiments and others’ predict that few consumers — even wine experts — would be able to identify a plausible fake of ’82 Lafite.

In my mind, the strongest piece of evidence in favor of Schamel’s theory is that his model shows no price effect for the most intuitively collectible of all wine bottles — Château Mouton-Rothschild bottles with artist labels. These are designed by a different prominent artist for each vintage. One might assume that these bottles, when empty — since they’re limited-edition works of art — would have higher value than others if they were being collected for legitimate purposes.

On the other hand, if collecting empty wine bottles is less like art collecting and more like straightforward conspicuous-consumption plumage — that is, if, say, a collector’s display of a row of empty bottles in his or her dining room or wine cellar is functioning as a mere social display of the total value of all the expensive wines that he or she has consumed — then he or she would have an interest in buying the most expensive possible bottles, which would explain the model’s results without the need for counterfeiting. It would be interesting to survey empty-bottle collectors to see, at least anecdotally, what qualities they claim to value most.

It was also brought up in the Q&A session that, to complete his or her work, a counterfeiter would also need an appropriate cork. As few corks are available on eBay, Schamel has not yet investigated a potential cork effect. However — and this is speculation — I would imagine there to still be a robust market amongst counterfeiters for empty bottles without corks, primarily because I’d assume that there is also a separate black market for counterfeit corks (or real corks without bottles) that could complete the sets, so to speak.

I’d also assume that one of the main categories of counterfeit-wine buyers would be conniving restaurateurs in regions where there’s a lot of demand for prestige bottles but relatively little wine tradition or wine education; China and Russia come to mind. I’ve seen a table full of businessmen in Hong Kong order a bottle of 1970 Haut-Brion and mix it with Coca-Cola. Restaurant customers in such situations would be easily duped — and they also might be less vigilant about looking at the cork. Such restaurateurs might take steps, for instance, to avoid presentation of the cork when the bottle is opened.

I’ll leave it at this: if I were going to go into the wine counterfeiting business, eBay would certainly be one place I’d start.

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  1. Joe, Portland Oregon says:

    It’s illegal to sell alcohol over the internet so “empty” bottles are sold. Anything inside is presumably worthless for the sake of the transaction. There is no refilling going on.

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  2. Ben says:

    Sorry, but alcohol sales on the internet are alive and well, just not necessarily in all jurisdictions. While not being able to prove a negative, I present winelibrary.com as strong evidence that it’s possible to stock up online.

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  3. Grant says:

    Wine mixed with Coke? Gross.

    And yeah, I’ve seen bottles sold on Ebay “for collector’s purposes.” The absinthe inside (before the ban was lifted) was purely incidental and “worthless.”

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  4. mfw13 says:

    This type of thing also happens regularly on Ebay with old baseball card wrappers. Unscrupulous individuals buy wrappers, put in the appropriate numbers of cards (no stars, of course), reseal the pack, and then sell it to unsuspecting buyers as an unopened pack.

    With genuine unopened packs from the 50′s and 60′s going in the hundreds of dollars and Ebay unwilling to do much about it, more than a few people have gotten ripped off.

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  5. Sam Carter says:

    Isn’t the simpler explanation just that rare bottles, full or empty, are rare, and thus command a higher price?

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  6. Ian says:

    @Joe: That makes sense as a way to get around the rules for cheap liquor, but the bottles in question are not being sold at prices that indicate they are full of wine.

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  7. Scott says:

    Joe,
    One can buy alcohol over the Internet quite easily. Please do a search on ‘beer of the month’ or ‘wine of the month’ clubs. I send these as gifts to clients and associates several times a year.

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  8. ryan says:

    Joe, While it is true that people sell full bottles (wine, beer, etc) as “empty” on eBay… these bottles are empty and are going for high prices, but no where near the actual price of a full bottle of the wine.

    The wine in question, 1982 Chateau Lafite-Rothschild, was going for over 100 euros empty… A full, authentic bottle of 1982 Chateau Lafite-Rothschild is worth over $2000…

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