When Older Means Better

Last month the British newspapers devoted considerable space to the news that a customer in a restaurant had returned a bottle of wine. He was concerned that his £18,000 magnum of 1961 Château Pétrus might be a fake: apparently the cork did not carry the stamp of authenticity he was looking for. Elsewhere in the wine world, collector William Koch has apparently hired a former British Secret Service agent and a nuclear physicist to help determine whether his bottles of 18th-century claret once owned by Thomas Jefferson are what he thought they were when he bought them.

In the luxury world, fakes are normally associated with counterfeit handbags, accessories and watches. However, now that the concept of vintage luxury is taking root, with certain old luxury items rising in price, there are more opportunities for the unscrupulous. When it comes to wine, a "real" bottle from a relatively inauspicious vintage can be fitted with a trophy label—something like a 1982—dramatically increasing the bottle's value.

The customer who ordered the Pétrus was reportedly rather cross. Apparently the wine had been reserved weeks in advance, and it's easy to imagine the sense of mounting anticipation: inviting select friends to savor the moment of triumph, the excitement as he walked into the restaurant feeling all eyes upon him, the delicious moment of summoning the sacerdotal bottle, the solemn ritual of pulling the cork—and then, as with a big-game hunter about to bag an elephant, the gun jams.

The problem with vintage luxury is that often such items date from an era when products were not badges of status and dignity but rather simply well-made goods—in this case, a bottle of admittedly high-quality red wine made by a family company. But the passage of time had changed it from a bottle of wine into a potent status symbol.

Vintage luxury harks back to a time when things tended to be a good deal more handmade than they are today. And while this handmade quality accounted for products of character and individuality, it also admitted scope for human error. With the Pétrus, perhaps the winemakers simply ran out of the corks that were normally used and had to make do with another one. However, what was a matter of little consequence almost half a century ago is enough to make the national newspapers in the early 21st century: this is what happens when we apply the rigorous standards of today to a product made when the world was a very different place.

Cigars, long a sign of plutocracy, offer an analogous example. Today there are a few vintage smokes that really appeal to the collector: Cuban Dunhill Cabinetta, Cuban Davidoff and the Flor de Cano Short Churchill. These cigars, dating from the 1980s, now fetch up to £5,000 a box—if you can find them. "There are more fakes than real ones around," says Edward Sahakian of Davidoff in London. "You used to be able to tell by the boxes, but now fakers are filling old boxes with new cigars, so really you have to rely on your own senses of sight, smell and, of course, taste."

The vintage Rolex market has also taken off, with desirable models like the Paul Newman Daytona, the Steve McQueen Explorer, the Jean-Claude Killy triple-calendar chronograph and Double Red fetching ever-mounting sums. These are out-of-production watches that were made in small numbers or did not sell particularly well; now they can fetch six-figure sums.

It is details that become apparent only under near-forensic examination that give these watches trophy status: the density of printing on the dial; the typography of a number or letter … seemingly trifling but enough to account for huge differences in value. Among the most coveted: arcane sports Rolexes with aged dials. "Some dials have discolored with age; for instance, a fault in the paint used on a Rolex Daytona from late 1993 to 1995 caused the inner dials to go brown," explains Daniele Pizzogini, a London-based specialist vintage-watch dealer. "There is also a similar fault in a Submariner that went brown, and an Explorer II that is now known as the 'cream dial.' At the time a lot of people took them back to Rolex to have the dial changed, so they are now scarce and collectible." Just as with stamps, minuscule faults in the past account for high values today. "What left the Rolex factory as a black dial has now aged to a rich metallic caramel colour—a desirable trait in today's market," reads the description in one auction catalog. It would be only a slight exaggeration to say that there is panic buying of certain vintage Rolexes.

Of course the faking of dials, or overenthusiastic "restoration," is not unknown, and again the only safeguard is either a lifetime's knowledge of the subject or a philosophical temperament.

To go back to the disputed magnum of Château Pétrus: as it happens, the bottle was off anyway and the story has a happy ending. The restaurant just happened to have a magnum of Lafite '45 knocking around at £20,000. Not all lovers of vintage luxury can expect to be so lucky, however. For all the knowledge available in our information age, the best advice has been around since ancient Rome and can be summed up in two words: caveat emptor. Let the buyer beware.