eBay - The Las Vegas of Wine
by Nuikki, Editor of FINE Wine Magazines
Recently, the Château Lafite 1982 has experienced an astronomical rise in value. Perhaps too astronomical, and perhaps not based on the quality or uniqueness of the wine itself. Still, month after month auction houses report new record prices and I expected that to happen again recently. Up for auction was the perfect bottle. The starting price was exceptionally low, but as around thirty bidders competed for it, the price rose to EUR 500 in just a few hours. In the end, the Lafite was sold for EUR 650 – a high price for an empty bottle.
The fact that the auction took place on eBay a few months ago is not enough to explain the high price – significantly higher than what I paid for a full bottle in 2000. I feel that the only logical explanation for the price is that in a few months’ time the same bottle will reappear on the market, either on eBay or in China, although this time it will be full, equipped with a fancy new foil and with another zero added to the price.
The sale of fake wines online, especially on eBay, has been common for years, and business seems to be thriving. The most obvious proof of this are the prices paid for empty bottles. Recycling is evidently the topic of the day, even on eBay.
eBay is both - heaven and hell for the wine buyer. The selection is endless and endlessly changing (as I write this there are around 89,000 bottles of wine for sale, and thousands more will appear next week), but there are huge fluctuations in quality. Practically any wine at all can be found on eBay, from the famous Lafite 1787 to the latest Romanée-Conti. Often the price is only one tenth of the price in international auction houses, but so is your chance of making a successful purchase. I have acquired hundreds of wine bottles through various countries’ eBay sites. Many of them have been genuine, in good condition and well packaged. Unfortunately, many have also arrived broken or proven to be fakes. Around one in ten wines have failed to arrive altogether.
eBay offers opportunities for real bargains, because the sellers are usually private individuals, selling directly from their own cellars without intermediaries. Usually when buying from a private vendor, the main problem is not the reliability of the wine’s origins, but the transport. Few people have access to the proper packaging materials needed for wine, and even fewer know how to insure the freight. On average, two out of ten bottles are broken on arrival.
eBay is also used by hundreds of “real” wine dealers, but many of them do it mainly to dump their worst bottles onto the market. eBay is also paradise for wine counterfeiters and thereby an excellent place for us professionals to learn to recognise fakes. I would argue that more than half of the bottles sold on eBay for over EUR 500 are counterfeits. Some of them blatantly obvious, like the Jefferson Lafite 1787 mentioned above (although even that was sold for over EUR 15,000), and others extremely skilful, like a Romanée-Conti Montrachet from 1982 that I recently acquired. Unfortunately there are also sellers who offer wines they do not even have. Having received payment, they disappear from the system, only to register again the next day under a different username.
Thus it is only worth buying wines on eBay if you are ready to take on risks regarding their authenticity, transport and condition – even their existence. In fact, I can only really recommend risk-free use of eBay for selling your wines. Selling on eBay is easy and the whole world is a potential buyer. You do not have to send out your wine until you have received the money. It’s simple and it’s safe.
The risk of being defrauded on eBay has grown exponentially in the last 24 months. Therefore it is necessary to be alert and not to set your hopes too high. I recommend observing the following rules when buying on eBay:
- Only buy from sellers with at least 200 positive ratings from buyers. Ensure that the seller did not receive the positive feedback by selling 50-cent pens but rather products similar to what you are buying.
- Look for sellers who are based in your country whenever possible.
- Check that the seller has sold wines before and that the feedback received for postage and packing is a full five stars.
- Ask the seller to send pictures of the wines directly from his or her private email address. Particularly pictures of the foil and the wine’s surface level.
- Ask for photographs with a date stamp.
- Always ask the seller to insure the wine for its full value.
- In the case of expensive bottles, ask the seller to use a courier service rather than ordinary post.
- Only use PayPal or a similar payment method; never agree to wire transfers or Western Union. Never give your credit card details to the seller.
Following these principles already improves your chances of buying a genuine, full wine bottle in good condition on eBay by 50%. But it is always a gamble. In fact, many sellers’ favourite expression is probably “What happens on eBay, stays on eBay.”