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France criticized as presidential wines go under hammer

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

President Francois Hollande has been accused of selling off France's national heritage with an auction of hundreds of bottles of fine wine from the cellars of his Elysee Palace.

A total of 1,200 bottles, including some of the world's most prestigious labels, went under the hammer on Thursday evening in a sale that has become symbolic of the cash-strapped government's austerity drive.

Some 250 people, some just curious onlookers, were present at the Drouot auction hall in Paris for the sale, which will run until Friday. The wine itself was not present and the public had to make do with photographs.

Daniel Charoupis admits he is only an amateur wine lover.

"If there is a forgotten batch it will complete my cellar. One can always dream," he told AFP. "I want to see what price it is all going to go for."

A Japanese couple on holiday in the French capital were also present, having heard about the sale from a friend back home.

Two hundred customers will be bidding via the Internet and 15 telephone lines have also been installed for remote offers to come in.

One of the first to go was a 1985 bottle of Krug Champagne sold for 1,200 euros ($1,500).

Officially, the purpose of the auction is to liberate funds to rejuvenate the presidential collection, but officials have also stressed that the proceeds will be invested in more modest replacements and that any surplus will be ploughed back into government coffers.

The conspicuous cost-cutting is in keeping with the tone of Hollande's presidency, which has been clouded by a gloomy economic backdrop.

But it has not gone down well with Michel-Jack Chasseuil, one of France's most prominent wine collectors.

Chasseuil has written to Hollande to express his regret over the decision to allow bottles "that are part of the heritage of our country to be sold off to billionaires from all over the world".

He added: "Even if they go for fantastic sums, it will be a derisory amount in terms of the national budget and when you think about what these wines represent in the eyes of the whole world."

Dealers and private collectors from all over the globe have expressed interest in the sale and high prices are anticipated because of the bottles' novelty value.

The sale includes wines from every major region in France as well as a number of bottles from two of the most prestigious, and expensive, estates in the world -- Bordeaux's Chateau Petrus and Burgundy's Domaine de la Romanee-Conti.

Two bottles of Petrus from the outstanding 1990 vintage have been given a guide price of between 2,200 and 2,500 euros ($2,850-$3,250), based on current valuations in the fine wine world.

In practice, they are likely to go for far more because of their unique provenance and because they are guaranteed to have been kept in optimum conditions for ageing in the Elysee cellars.

There will also be keen interest in the prices achieved by two bottles of Chateau Latour, a 1936 that is the oldest wine in the sale, and one from 1961, regarded as one of the outstanding Bordeaux vintages of the 20th century.

"It is a sale loaded with symbolism and I'm intrigued to see what the outcome will be," Ghislaine Kapandji, the auctioneer in charge of the sale, told AFP.

The sale represents 10 percent of the 12,000 bottles currently held in the Elysee cellar, which has been regularly replenished since it was established in 1947. Some 150,000 euros is spent on wines in the cellar every year.

The Elysee's chief sommelier Virginie Routis told AFP that in light of the economic crisis "we can no longer allow ourselves to put bottles worth 2,000 or 3,000 euros on the table."

Each bottle included in the auction has been given a special additional label certifying that they came from the "Palais de l'Elysee" with the date of the sale, which will conclude on Friday.

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