Monday, October 19, 2009

Random House Settles Libel Lawsuit

Random House has settled the lawsuit brought against it three months ago in London by wine expert Michael Broadbent.

Broadbent sued the publisher (although not the author Benjamin Wallace) of the book The Billionaire's Vinegar for libel. According to Slate magazine:
Broadbent, the legendary former head of Christie's wine department, alleges that Wallace defamed him in his gripping whodunit about the so-called Thomas Jefferson bottles—a trove of wines initially said to have belonged to the oenophilic Virginian but now almost universally believed to have been fakes. Three of the bottles, all Bordeaux, were auctioned off by Broadbent in the 1980s, and of the many wine luminaries caught up in this saga, his reputation has suffered the most damage.
According to the New York Times:
. . . Mr. Wallace suggested that Mr. Broadbent was too credulous in his assessments of the Jefferson wines. Why? According to the book, he was eager to please patrons like Hardy Rodenstock, the German collector who claimed to have found the Jefferson bottles, because he depended on them for access to older, extraordinarily valuable wines.
Random House issued an apology, agreed not to distribute the book in the UK and paid an undisclosed sum to Mr. Broadbent.

Wallace, the author, was very vocal in saying that Random House's decision was a business one, "in order to contain its legal costs and exposure in the UK." He reminded everyone that he, the author, had not been sued, that the settlement did not require "a single word" of his book be changed, and that the book could still be sold everywhere else in the world outside of the UK. He added that he did not think Mr. Broadbent acted "in bad faith" during the auction of the bottles.

Eric Asimov, the chief wine critic of the New York Times, referred to an email he had received from Wallace that said about Broadbent:
“Why, in his court filing, didn’t Michael Broadbent make any claim about the authenticity of the three Jefferson bottles he sold?’’ he asked. “If he thinks the bottles are legitimate, why didn’t he try to prove that in a court of law.’’
The controversy started in 1985 when a German collector by the name of Hardy Rodenstock put the bottles up for auction. Rodenstock claimed he'd purchased them in Paris where workers tearing down a house had found them behind a false wall in the cellar. The bottles were engraved with the initials Th.J., and Rodenstock insisted they had belonged to Jefferson, who'd lived in Paris while he served as America's Minister to France from 1785 to 1789. Jefferson is widely regarded as America's first great wine connoisseur. Rodenstock refused to reveal the location of the house or the number of bottles found.

Broadbent sold the first bottle--Lot 337, a 1787 Ch√Ęteau Lafite--at Christie's in London on December 5, 1985. The New Yorker described the bottle this way:
. . . handblown dark-green glass and capped with a nubby seal of thick black wax. It had no label, but etched into the glass in a spindly hand was the year 1787, the word “Lafitte,” and the letters “Th.J.”
It was purchased by Malcolm Forbes (with his son Kip acting as his surrogate during the bidding) for $156,450--"a record price for a single bottle" according to Slate.

Rodenstock continued to sell bottles from his cache. Another American billionaire, William Koch, purchased four of them in late 1988 for half a million dollars. You may remember Koch because his boat won the 1992 America's Cup.

Koch sought to authenticate his purchase through the Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello. Cinder Goodwin, a Monticello scholar, had already pointed out to Broadbent two discrepancies: (1) that Jefferson recorded all of his wine purchases, and there was no record of the Rodenstock bottles; (2) Jefferson signed his correspondence with a colon (Th:J.)

Koch hired experts to validate his purchase and was not at all pleased to learn the Th.J. initials had been etched on the bottles with an electric power tool.

The vengeful Koch wanted to file both civil and criminal complaints against Rodenstock. In August, 2006, he filed a civil complaint in a New York federal court. Koch's chief investigator told The New Yorker "he estimated that since 2005 Koch has spent more than a million dollars on the Rodenstock case—twice what he paid for the wine."

Investigation into Rodenstock's background revealed that he was not connected to the famous German optics manufacturing family as he'd told people. His real name was Meinhard Goerke; Rodenstock was a pseudonym.

Rodenstock/Goerke refused to submit to the New York court in Koch's case. The New Yorker says he claims that, even if the court issues a default judgment, "the German courts will not enforce it."

To read the New York Times article, go here.

To read The New Yorker article, go here.

To read the Slate article, go here.

I suspect all the publicity about this case will help promote The Billionaire's Vinegar. Settling the case was probably a good business decision on Random House's part as well as cheap insurance to guarantee the publisher can continue to hawk the book around the world.

1 comment:

Sandra Ferguson said...

Good for the author to point out that he wasn't sued, nor has there been any claim to resend the book or alter the printed pages. Certainly, makes me that think that fiction doesn't fall to for from reality in this case.