French president's palace puts vintage wine up for auction to raise money amid tough times

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In headier times, some of these wines were served at dinner for French presidents and their guests — kings, queens, other heads of state. In today's times of austerity, the Elysee Palace is selling off these vintage bottles.

French President Francois Hollande's palace has decided to dive into its wine cellar and sell some of its treasures, to raise money and replenish its collection with more modest vintages.

About 1,200 bottles — a 10th of the Elysee's wine collection — went on sale at Drouot auction house in Paris on Thursday. The auction is expected to fetch 250,000 euros ($325,000). Organizers say that prices may reach up to 2,200-2,500 euros ($2,845-$3,235) for a 1990 Petrus, down to 15 euros ($20) for a more modest wine. The sale ends Friday.

"This is exceptional because this is the first time that the Elysee put its bottles on sale," Ghislaine Kapandji, the auctioneer, told The Associated Press.

A small label mentioning the Elysee Palace and the date of the auction has been affixed on each bottle. "I think that's a bonus for buyers, because that's a way for them to be sure that these bottles have always been stocked in the cellar of the Elysee," which means "good preservation conditions," she said. "For many people, that is also the purchase of a souvenir, of a symbol."

Wine lovers from Europe, the U.S., Russia or China have contacted the Drouot auction house before the sale.

"Lots of sommeliers of Parisian gourmet restaurants contacted us to get information about the bottles. We've also been in touch with wine brokers working for international buyers," said Ambroise de Montigny, the wine expert for the auction.

Many of the bottles are ready to be drunk immediately. They've been chosen by Virginie Routis, head sommelier at the Elysee, mainly because they were available in too small quantities to be served in the big dinners organized at the Elysee.

The bottles come from vineyards from everywhere in France, mostly from Burgundy and Bordeaux. A few bottles of champagne from Salon are estimated at about 350 euros ($455). The oldest bottle on sale, a Chateau Latour from 1936 coming from one of the most famous estates of the Bordeaux region, could be sold for more than 500 euros ($645). An elegant oval wooden box of five bottles of cognac with the inscription "presidency of the French Republic" should also attract the collectors.

The funds raised from the auction will be invested in younger, more modest wines, to ensure the president has enough wine for entertaining without drawing on public resources at a time of cost-cutting to bring down France's deficit, more than 87 billion euros at the end of 2012.

Hollande explained the goal was to manage the stocks in the cellar. The undertaking fits with Hollande's image as "Mr. Normal," a regular guy with regular tastes, compared to some predecessors like the attention-getting, friend-of-celebrities Nicolas Sarkozy.

The French president's office is not the first to auction wines to raise funds.

In January, the City Hall of Dijon organized an auction of 3,500 bottles of Burgundy from its cellar, raising 150,000 euros to help finance social services. In March, the British government also sold around 50 bottles from its cellar with Christie's, raising around 75,000 pounds.