The Madoff Cellar

Smirnoff vodka

On Wednesday, Morrell & Company (the Manhattan wine retailer and auction house) will sell the wine collection of the one and only Bernie Madoff.

According to Morrell, the contents of the cellar were seized by the U.S. Marshals Service, and the proceeds of the auction will be used by the Department of Justice to compensate victims of Madoff’s fradulent financial scheme. Given that Madoff swindled anywhere from $50 to $65 billion, you would expect this collection to be deep, extensive, and filled with the true gems of the wine world.

You would be wrong. There are 58 lots of wines and spirits, estimated by Morrell to raise a whopping $15,000. True, there are some high points: a case of 1996 Mouton, a bottle of 1964 Cheval Blanc, and six bottles each of 1990 Beychevelle and 1997 Tignanello. While most of us would be pleased to drink these, they don’t exactly rank as priceless collectibles.

One auction lot actually consists of two-ounce bottles of Smirnoff Vodka, Bombay Gin and Grand Marnier. Presumably, these were pilfered from hotel minibars or taken as swag from first class airline flights. If I were worth $50 billion (legitimately or not) I would first deplete the world’s supply of La Tache, Le Montrachet and Romanée St. Vivant—then, and only then, would I turn my attention to purloined airline miniatures. We know that money doesn’t necessarily purchase discernment or taste (any waiter in a high-end restaurant will attest to that), but you’d think the guy could at least have laid his hands on some Grey Goose.

Some observers believe these items will fetch a premium at auction simply because they belonged to Madoff, but I doubt it. I’m reminded of the scene in the TV reality show Pawn Stars when a customer brings a box of eight-track tapes into the pawn shop, claiming that they belonged to Sammy Davis Jr. The owner tells him that although that may have been true, at the end of the day it’s still just a box of eight-track tapes. Unfortunately, Bernie Madoff’s Smirnoff won’t taste much better than the stuff at the corner liquor store.


*On May 18th, the Bernie Madoff auction raised $41,530, nearly three times the estimated amount. The biggest ticket item was a case of 1996 Château Mouton Rothschild, which sold for $6800. Most mysterious item? A crystal decanter of “unknown contents,” which sold for $950.

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