Billionaire in NY: Fake wine made me quit auctions

AP News
Posted: Apr 03, 2013 9:07 PM

NEW YORK (AP) — A Florida billionaire energy maven and wine collector told a jury on Wednesday that he's lost his taste for fine wine auctions after getting ripped off too many times by peddlers of fake wine.

William Koch took the witness stand in the second week of a civil trial in which he accuses one-time billionaire Eric Greenberg of fraudulently selling him two dozen bottles of phony vintage wine in 2005. He is seeking a return of the $320,000 he spent on them, along with unspecified damages, in the Manhattan federal court trial.

Koch, a yachtsman who won the America's Cup in 1992, conceded that the wine he bought from the California businessman was not his first encounter with fakes. In 1988, he said, he paid $400,000 for four bottles of French wine he falsely believed had been owned by Thomas Jefferson.

"I buy very little at auctions today because I'm tired of buying fake wine," said Koch, the brother of industrialists and conservative political supporters David and Charles Koch.

Earlier in the trial, Greenberg testified that he never intentionally sold a fake bottle of wine. In the 2005 auction, he sold 17,000 bottles of wine, pocketing about $9 million and reducing his wine collection by about 25 percent.

Koch, the founder and president of the Oxbow Group, based in West Palm Beach, Fla., spent $3.7 million at the 2005 auction, buying 2,600 bottles of wine. He paid someone more than $75,000 daily for two days to make his bids, though he decided before the sale not to inspect the wines he eventually bought.

He said he also failed to research the supposed Jefferson bottles in 1988.

"Yes, I was bloody naive. In hindsight, I was stupid," Koch said as he was questioned by a defense lawyer, Arthur Shartsis.

"Mr. Koch, you own a $4 billion company. How naive are you?" Shartsis asked.

"When it comes to something that is a hobby, my biggest fault is I'm too trusting," Koch answered.

Shartsis asked if Koch had spent more than $100 million over the past quarter-century building his collection of 43,300 wine bottles, along with famous art, antiques, guns, coins, furniture, rare photographs and gold nuggets.

"I have spent a lot of money, but I don't want to know (how much), and I don't want my wife to know," said Koch, who has wine cellars in Massachusetts, Florida and Colorado.

Shartsis told him that he had spent $6 million at six auctions in October and November 2005 alone.

"I did?" Koch said. "I'm not surprised, but I didn't know that fact."

He said he was fooled into buying phony wine by a "glowing catalog" each time and complained that a warning by auction houses that wine is being sold "as is" is nothing but "a clause they use to let them steal and cheat."

Koch's testimony was to resume Thursday.