There’s a New Kid on the Auction Block

Wally's Auction

Wally’s Auctions is an arm of Wally’s Wine & Spirits, a major Los Angeles retailer.

Wally’s hosted their inaugural auction at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City on Nov. 13. With a value in excess of $3 million, the auction included more than 600 lots of fine and rare wines. The new auction house aims to add some serious competition to the New York market, which is currently dominated by Sotheby's, Christie's, Zachys, and Acker Merrall & Condit.[related]

Wally’s Auctions is an arm of Wally’s Wine & Spirits, a major Los Angeles retailer. The retail business was purchased from founder Steve Wallace in June of 2013 by Wallace’s longtime partner Christian Navarro, and Paul, Maurice, and Armand Marciano, founders and executives of Guess, Inc. In a widely reported and somewhat sensational move, Wally’s then hired away several members of the long-time senior wine team of Zachys. Michael Jessen, who was formerly the managing director of Zachys, was appointed president and chief executive officer.

The bidding commenced with opening remarks by Jessen, who conveyed a balance of ambition and modesty. He noted, "We want to be the best," and encouraged feedback at any point during or after the auction. Maurice Marciano remarked, "This whole thing started with a great passion; a passion for wine." Perhaps tempering Jessen’s bold determination, he said, "Tonight is our first auction, that we put together in a heartbeat. If the organization is not perfection, I promise you next time it will be perfection."

The night was not without a few hiccups. Bidders waited for table assignments when they arrived, there were technical difficulties with monitors going black, and there were seemingly some glitches with online bidding communication. Any and all blips were quickly managed. At the beginning of the night, some bidders I spoke with were intrigued but cautious about the new auction house. One advisor said he didn’t bring his clients to the inaugural auction because he wanted to check out the playing field first. Some I spoke with already felt a sense of ease because of longstanding relationships with the management team.

Jessen acted as auctioneer for the initial lots, and was then followed by auctioneer Ursula Hermacinski. Her stage presence, effortless and personal rapport with bidders, sense of humor, and ability to pit bidders against one another with the utmost charm and finesse was pure theater. This whole thing started with a great passion; a passion for wine.

Burgundy featured prominently, along with cult California wines like Screaming Eagle and Harlan Estate. Notable wines included the special releases of Dom Pérignon’s Oenothèque program, making this the first auction to offer the 1982 Oenothèque, released in October 2013. Twelve bottles were included in the 1982 lot, which sold for $18,000, plus the 20% buyer’s premium.

A collection of 33 bottles from all of the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Vosne Romanée Grand Crus from 2010 in their original wooden cases was clearly a source of excitement, with a winning bid of $110,000, plus the 20% buyer’s premium.

The four-course dinner, prepared by chef Wolfgang Puck, was $600 per person. One of the more revealing and surprising aspects of the evening happened in the back of the room, just slightly removed from the action of the bidders’ tables. Some attendees were part of the standing-room-only crowd; they were invited to enjoy champagne, but tables and dinner were strictly reserved for the bidders who had purchased seats. Once bidding started, however, additional tables were set up in the back and attendees sat down to move out of the way of dinner service. Then, servers delivered the first course to the tables and one woman, assuming she had mistakenly taken someone’s seat, started to move but was told by the staff, "No, this is for you, compliments of the chef." Apparently, the staff was told that everyone should be fed. I was one of the recipients of this gesture, and if this unusually generous act is representative of the honest good will of the people running this event, then it says a lot about them.

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In a brief interview, Jessen revealed that Wally’s next auction is slated for late February 2014. When asked about Wally’s point of difference in the market, he replied, "It takes time. This is a great start. We want to create energetic and exciting auctions, with people enjoying wine and food, the best sellers, high-quality wines, and follow through when the auction is over." Overall, the night was festive and electric. Big Four be warned: the new kid on the block just came out swinging.