The miniature could contain some of the only whisky left from the lost distillery.
I keep telling people I only watch the BBC’s Bargain Hunt television programme because it’s broadcast at lunchtime, but recently I’ve found myself watching all sorts of antiques shows and now am putting in bids for unlikely things (a bust of Dante? A Georgian bureau/bookcase which I have no space for?), so I think you can say I’m hooked.
And in case you think a Georgian bureau is a ludicrous expense, let me remind you that brown furniture is extremely cheap at the moment, and you’re better off buying an antique than trotting off to Ikea.
From this viewpoint, I look at auction houses as being places staffed by decent people who assess, seek out provenance and who, in the heat of the auction, will encourage people to buy, but will always be honest and fair in their assessment of the true value of the object. You trust them.
Which leads me, seamlessly, to the Malt Mill saga of last week. A whisky which no-one had ever seen before, ‘a unicorn whisky’ as the auction house called it, suddenly appears on the market.
That in itself isn’t that unusual. Most of the ‘Italian Job’ fakes were whiskies which no-one had ever seen before, appearing in volumes which ought to have alerted people to their dubiety though, despite the warning cries of ‘gift horse’, ‘too good to be true’, ‘caveat emptor’ and ‘are you really sure about the five Vermeers in the attic?’, folks went ahead and snapped them up.
Bargain hunting: Despite auctioneers’ best efforts, not all whisky sold at auction is guaranteed genuine
What set Malt Mill apart from other whiskies which – how shall I put this? – skirted on the borders of the plausible, was the caveat which the auction house put on the lot:
‘As a disclaimer, we… must say that we have had our experts scrutinise this mystical little wonder, and it is impossible to comment either way as to whether it is what it says on the tin. This, of course, adds to the esoteric awe and contemplation associated with this lot. It is ultimately up to the bidders to set the tone!’
In other words a polite way of saying: ‘Mebbe aye, mebbe naw, ‘sup to you.’ Or, in English [Thanks – Ed], we can’t prove it isn’t, so maybe it is; a stance which, it could be argued, doesn’t exactly err on the side of caution. Still, it was close enough for someone to shell out £3,400 for the miniature.
The story of its purchase was intriguing, as it boiled down to: ‘A mate of mine bought it off someone in the pub,’ which is an interesting approach to provenance.
Not wishing to cast aspersions on any licensed premises on Islay, but I think that most people who have frequented one of these drinking establishments have been offered something at some point. I know a man who was found in the ditch on the way home from one, moaning: ‘I bought a cow! I bought a cow!’ as the beast munched contentedly above him. At least it wasn’t a unicorn.
I believe that people who buy at auction assume that the seller is honest. I believe this is the case because those people also believe that the auction house has run checks on the item to satisfy themselves that it is kosher. As buyers, you trust their expertise.
I think we, naively, also believe that the auction house has a moral responsibility to run those necessary checks and balances to satisfy themselves (and the potential buyer) that what is being sold is, to their best belief, what it purports to be.
In other words, we as potential buyers think that the houses have done more than just believing the man in the pub story and that they have experts on hand who can indicate that they have reservations about bottles.
But read the small print. Here’s terms and conditions from a highly reputable auction house:
‘X makes every effort to ensure that the Catalogue and description of the Lot are accurate, but X makes no warranty to that effect.
‘All Statements whether made verbally or in the Catalogue are statements of opinion only and neither X or its employees or agents will be responsible for the accuracy of any opinion given. Each Lot is sold by the Seller with any and all errors of description, faults and imperfections.’
Here are three different specialist whisky auction houses’ take on the same issue:
‘In the event of a dispute arising over the provenance or authenticity of any Lot, if it cannot be proved beyond reasonable doubt to be genuine (and we shall be the sole judge as to authenticity and our decision shall be final) the Lot will be returned to the Seller and no monies will be due to either party. We reserve the right to refuse any item for auction, especially where there are questions regarding authenticity of the Lot.’
‘All Listings will be prepared and submitted by the Company but will be based upon the information which you provide.’
‘Should there be any doubt on the authenticity of an item, the onus is on the seller to prove it. In the event this cannot be done, the item will be returned at the full cost of the seller.’
All say the same thing, but say it slightly differently. Some suggest they will check, others say it’s up to the seller, others that we’ll do our best but if we make a mistake it’s not our fault. This doesn’t just apply to high-profile bottles such as Malt Mill, but to every bottle of whisky that comes up at auction.
An auctioneer’s job is difficult, at times almost impossible, so this isn’t a criticism of them. They are honest people. Rather, it is a warning to all of us who might be tempted to enter that market. Read the terms and conditions. Do your research into the whisky – and the house’s expertise.
It’s your money, but I have to confess that someone saying: ‘Well, to be honest, we’re not sure but, what the hell, it’s up to you’ fills me with the same sense of security as I get from the guy in the pub selling me that ‘genuine’ Rolex.
I’m worried about that bureau now. Does anyone know anything about Georgian furniture?
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Latest news 31 January 2018
Long considered a ‘unicorn’ whisky, a miniature of ‘Malt Mill’ has surfaced at auction.
Latest news 12 November 2015
Three lots of rare whisky labels have been withdrawn from auction following protests on Facebook.
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From White Horse to Malt Mill, the story of one of the Scotch whisky industry’s true pioneers.
Latest news 28 February 2017
A large-scale fake whisky operation has been uncovered following a tip-off from an auction website.