It’s very easy to resent someone with a multimillion-dollar luxury condo in the once-genuine East Village, especially if after a few years he puts it back on the market for more than three times what he paid. But the photographer Gregory Colbert, with his black-and-gray ponytail waving around as he gives a guest a tour, is hard to dislike.
“How tall are you? Six feet! Stand in the center!” said Mr. Colbert on Monday evening, trying to calculate the height of his 6,750-square-foot, 149-year-old loft’s vaulted living room.
The former concert hall, apparently 42 feet at its crown, looks like some sort of Victorian train station, but with aboriginal spears and an Indian daybed plunked nowhere in particular, and, on the far wall, one of Mr. Colbert’s gargantuan, soft-hearted, sepia-toned photographs of a boy and an elephant kneeling together.
His apartment, in a relatively anonymous building at 210-214 East Fifth Street, went on the market for $19.95 million late last week. “This building has its own songs,” the photographer said, “and, as a place you just come into, it has its own body language.”
Wearing blue jeans, a collarless white button-down and a suede blazer, he resembled a rich uncle and a stoned aunt. “I want to work in spaces that open you up,” he offered. “I don’t like alienating spaces—spaces where you feel like an alpha male with all kinds of testosterone—that want to hit you with an ax on the forehead, ‘Look at me and all my possessions!’”
The ceiling in his office/library, next door to the arched living room, is paneled with empty beeswax-coated teabags: “I bought a million,” he explained, “that were damaged by humidity.”
He briefly showed his master bedroom, long and mostly empty, with a nice white mattress nonchalantly on the floor. A massive flat-screen TV was next to the bed, but, he explained, only for viewing films. “I’m not a bourgeois,” he said. But then he turned to the master bathroom: “And, you see, all limestone.”
He pressed a button in the antique kitchen and two glass garage doors slid up to reveal a terrace.
His exhibit “Ashes and Snow” travels the world in what Mr. Colbert calls the Nomadic Museum (one Times review called its shots of exotic people dancing with animals “mystical,” a second called them “spectacularly vacuous”). That means he stays in the 10-room Manhattan pied-à-terre for only six or so weeks per year, though other artists are usually around. “It’s been a place where people get pollinated by New York. But I said, ‘You know what, I think I have to go back out and be what I am,’ which is a nomad. And nomads, you only take what you need.”
Can an apartment on East Fifth Street sell for $19.95 million right now? “We’re targeting people who have a creative aesthetic sense,” said Warburg’s Richard Steinberg, the listing broker. “We’re looking for people who are either in the entertainment or the arts, people who have alternative lifestyles.”
Alec Baldwin, E. L. Doctorow, Calvin Trillin and Jonathan Lethem were all in the loft this October for an Obama fund-raiser: “They say in India that when a person rises, an elephant laughs,” Mr. Colbert said then. “And when I saw Obama rising, I heard the elephants laughing.”
He paid only $6 million for the apartment four and a half years ago, so profits from the sale will go toward his global photography. “I have no intention of dying rich. I go on my expeditions,” he said. “They say in India, you make plans and the elephants laugh. I heard the elephants laughing and they said, ‘Gregory, keep going even more out.’”