Whisky Advocate Defends Bonhams Bourbon Blunder

by Oliver Klimek on March 26, 2013

The October 2012 Bonhams whisky auction caused quite a lot of discussions because of the many misdescribed bourbon bottles that went for crazy prices. In their Spring 2013 edition Whisky Advocate published an article that quotes an explanation issued by Bonhams and essentially defefends the company’s view.

The L.A. Whisk(e)y Society who initially brought up the issue have already posted a reaction on their blog. I completely agree with what is written there, but as the author appeared to refer to me as well using my “inflating the bubble” term, I would like to share my own thoughts on this as well.

In the Bonhams statement it says:

“Bonhams would never intentionally misdate items for sale. Any assertions otherwise are just inflammatory.”

Prior to citing the statement, the article mentioned that “Bloggers were quick to seize on the mistakes”. Neither the LAWS nor I have accused Bonhams to intentionally mislead the buyers, neither do I know of any other blogger who did. Yet the article creates the impression we did accuse Bonhams anyway, both by the aforementioned juxtaposition and by going to great lengths ridiculing a “conspiracy theory”.

But the possibility of intentionally misleading buyers does exist on the auction markets. And uneasy feelings in this respect are not helped by the fact that Bonhams was actually informed about at least one of the bottles in question before the auction but did nothing to correct the description or retract the lot, as pointed out in a comment to my article.

What Bonhams did may have been a mistake, but it was a very bad one. Not having a closer look at auction submissions is inexcusable for a multi-milion dollar company founded in 1793. Excusing such blatant sloppiness with time constraints shows that generating income has priority over careful work for them. Postponing the lots is the only viable solution here, as is telling your vendors that you need time to assess the submissions.

And it is downright scandalous not to react to valid concerns about the items. This would have been an opportunity for Bonhams to set things straight and show that they are indeed concerned about the genuinity of their auction lots. But sadly this opportunity was missed.

Playing the issue down as if it was a schoolboy error is part of the scandal. It would have been their journalistic duty to warn buyers not to burn their money. Whisky Advocate taking sides with Bonhams instead is outlining a blueprint how to succeed with selling dubious bottles at an auction: Just submit a lot of them close to the deadline.

Another thing the Whisky Advocate article sadly lacks is the information if the buyers of the misdescribed bottles were informed about the errors and offered a refund. This would have been the last opportunity for Bonhams to prove their sincerity. The author appears to have a good contact with Bonhams. Wouldn’t it have been logical to ask this question?

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Sjoerd de Haan-Kramer March 26, 2013 at 12:27 pm

An interesting article, Oliver. With this happening, and the other auctions in the whisky news last year (involving Luc Timmermans) I wonder if I should regret not visiting or participating in such an auction.

I find it strange that Whisky Advocate picks up the argument from the other direction and directs their anger at bloggers. They have done so before in a different light. You’d almost think they feel threatened by people who do similar (but less professional) work for free.

I am a big fan of the German run whiskyauction.com and have not had any troubles with them.

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politicalidiot March 27, 2013 at 4:57 am

Follow the money. I am a follower of the LA Whisk(e)y site. I think those guys have great integrity and most of all have fun. Magazines like the Whisky Advocate and auction house like Bonham’s are driven by profit. They are going to have an agenda. WA feels bloggers are competition, and they are. Let’s face it WA is old news by the time it shows up in the mailbox. The fact is Bonham’s had motive to pump up prices. I don’t care if their false dates were a “mistake” (though the evidence suggests something different), I wouldn’t buy a bottle of water from them. There are plenty of legitimate and trustworthy auction sites out there to choose from. But why be a buyer in this stupid market. There are a whole lot of people who are just buying on a fad that are going to wake up one day and wonder what the hell they were thinking. Until then I am a SELLER!

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Jeff March 30, 2013 at 6:10 pm

I think that both you and LAWS are entirely in the right: Bonhams takes no responsibility for the mistakes it makes (see their disclaimer), does nothing to make amends for them and, as per the LAWS article, has yet to be shown to make a mistake which did not work in their favour.

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RN April 2, 2013 at 11:50 pm

Going back to June 18th, 2009, Bonhams is mentioned 67 times in Bonhams Advocate… excuse me, Whisky Advocate Blog posts. One imagines Bonhams mentions would be equaled, or surpassed, in print issues since too. No one should be shocked to see Hansell’s rag throw Bonhams a bunch of softballs, and throw The L.A. Whisk(e)y Society under the bus. Whiskey Advocate is NOT impartial in this matter. Bonhams has been the subject of many a Whisky/Malt Advocate puff piece, so why not one more? Anyone surprised by this hasn’t been perceiving Whisky Advocate for what it is.

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