Rare wine auctions, such as one taking place this weekend in Paris that is expected to rake in a record two million euros (2.8 million dollars), are becoming increasingly popular with wealthy international buyers, especially from China and Russia.
Auctions are a growing phenomenon, said Claude Maratier, independent auction expert and organiser of this weekend's sale of fine and rare wines. "There is currently one a week in France," he said.
According to the "Conseil des Ventes", the French auction regulator, the value of wine actions in France has more than doubled in three years, going from 9.9 million euros (14.3 million dollars) in 2003, to 23.7 million euros (34.2 million dollars) in 2006.
Buyers for the last few years have been mainly French, although for the very top wines they are falling away. "The French buyers are getting more timid because prices are often exorbitant," said Maratier.
These days the high-end buyers tend to be from new markets such as Russia and China. "The Chinese have enormous buying power for the most expensive and most sought after wines," said Maratier.
Buyers such as these are mainly resellers. "Essentially merchants who have a worldwide clientele," said Maratier, one of whose most faithful customers is a major Russian buyer acting on behalf of well-heeled compatriots.
At Christies France, 50 percent of buyers are French. "Half are merchants and half are private buyers," said Julie Carpentier, an in-house wine specialist.
"Each auction house has it's own clients," said Laurie Matheson, who sells between 3,000 and 5,000 every two months at the Paris-based auction-house Artcurial. Prices range from 30 to 300 euros, and non-French clients are mainly from other European countries.
Matheson said the increasing popularity of auctions is linked to the growing market for French wine.
Matheson also noted her clients were getting younger, with wine collectors or drinkers now tending to be in their thirties.
At Christies, for the last two or three years, the trend has been the same, with many buyers, often English-speaking, aged between 30 and 40.
"They are buying more and more at our Paris sales," said Carpentier. "They know there are interesting investment possibilities in wine today," and they are well informed, with deep pockets, she said.
Maratier, who is putting 10,000 bottles up for auction this weekend, says two factors contribute to the increased popularity of such sales.
"One of the main reasons is that you can find wines of certain chateaux or particular vintages that are, for the most part, not normally on the market," he said. Wines such as these find their way to auction from private or corporate collections and restaurant stocks.
Younger buyers are also comfortable with buying wine at auction via the Internet. "Very young buyers bid high on the top bottles," said Angelique de Lencquesaing, founder of iDealwine, a web-based wine auctioneer.
"The catalogue is online, and buyers log on and bid," de Lencquesaing said.
About 140,000 users are registered for free with iDealwine, which, as well as auctioning wine on the net, acts as a buyer at traditional real-life auction houses for registered clients.
The average spending of Internet-based buyers is 900 euros, but, says de Lencquesaing, just as in an auction room, prices for individual bottles can run into the thousands.
Just last year, for example, a mathusalem six litres or eight bottles of Cristal de Roederer champagne 1990, was snapped up via the web for a record online price of around 13,000 euros. The bidder was based in Milan.