American billionaire Bill Koch will do something tonight that few people of his wealth would ever consider.
He will appear on the ABC News program "20/20" to admit he is a sucker. A sucker for fake wines.
"You’re damn right," he says. "Pigeon, sucker, whatever they call the mark."
Koch says he spent some $5 million buying rare vintages of top French wines, which later turned out to be fakes. Many were actually produced in the kitchen of a master con man in suburban Los Angeles.
"I just had to have them," Koch told "20/20" in an interview conducted in the elaborate wine cellar of his oceanfront mansion in Palm Beach, Florida. "Then I’d open it up and drink it and it was dish water or moose piss."
Koch admits there will be little sympathy for a wealthy person spending $50,000 to $100,000 for a fake bottle of wine, but he choked up as he described his distress at seeing the debasement of "the art, craftsmanship" of so many fine wines being faked.
While Koch’s twin brother David is best known for the money he spends on conservative political causes, Bill Koch is famed for the money he spends on his passions, including fine art and fine wine.
By his estimate, he has bought some 500 bottles of wine that he thought were rare vintages of the finest French chateaus.
Many of them, he says, were actually created by a 28-year-old debonair faker from Indonesia, Rudy Kurniawan, who took the wine world by storm with his supposed access to wines many thought had long since disappeared.
"All of sudden, Rudy Kurniawan started mass producing them and they were available like crazy,” said Maureen Downey, who authenticates wine and helped to unmask many of Kurniawan’s fakes.
Some were snapped up by collectors to fill holes in their wine cellars, while others were purchased as status symbols by the wealthy from Hollywood to New York to Palm Beach.
Kurniawan ingratiated himself with top wine experts and auction houses, many of whom gave his faked wine glowing reviews.
“He was a big partier,” said Pete Hellman who first broke the story in the magazine Wine Spectator and stunned the wine world. "It does embarrass many people, it’s humiliating."
When Koch realized he had been tricked he unleashed a team of lawyers and private detectives to expose the fakes.
When the FBI raided Kurniawan’s home in Arcadia, California they discovered his fine vintages were being created in his kitchen where he would create his own labels from top producers, attach them to old wine bottles and fill the bottles with a homegrown recipe of more common wines he cooked up.
"I like to call it his counterfeiting house of horrors," said Downey.
Like all con men, Kurniawan made mistakes. He created a 1945 bottle of wine from a particular vineyard that the chateau that produced the real wine did not use until 1982.
Most glaring, Koch discovered that the label on one bottle supposedly from 1857, had been affixed with Elmer’s Glue. Elmer’s Glue was not produced until 1947.
"I cannot stand to be cheated," said Koch, who has spent five times as much investigating the fakes as he originally spent on them. "I want someone to know they sell me a fake, man, I’m coming after them no matter how much it costs."
Koch’s team worked with the FBI and he agreed to testify against Kurniawan at his criminal fraud trial.
Kurniawan’s lawyer, Jerome Mooney, said his client is sorry for what he did but that the harm to wealthy collectors like Koch was relatively small.
“Nobody was hurt by this, absolutely nobody was hurt by this,” Mooney told "20/20". “It not that it’s less of a crime but that it’s less of an impact.”
Since his arrest, Kurniawan has been behind bars for more than two years. He was convicted in December and is set to be sentenced by a federal judge in New York on July 17.
Bill Koch plans to be there.
- Food & Cooking
- Bill Koch
- Rudy Kurniawan