The Quiet Listings

In the middle of these cartoonishly dismal times, what’s a cosmetics executive to do if she wants to ask nearly $100 million for her penthouse? She’ll put it on the market without actually putting it on the market, just like a venture capitalist, a widowed philanthropist, a pharmaceuticals mogul and a Victoria’s Secret billionaire have recently done.

According to two sources, Sandie Tillotson, the senior vice president and co-founder of Nu Skin Enterprises, a massive direct-selling cosmetics company (products include a Creamy Hydrating Masque Nourishing Treatment and IceDancer Invigorating Leg Gel), has quietly put an $80 million price tag on her Time Warner Center penthouse. She paid $29 million for it in early 2005, and renovated the condo from about 8,300 square feet of raw space into a five-bedroom pied-à-terre.

One reason for the spate of these very hushed listings is embarrassment over asking such huge sums during such a hugely depressed time. On the one hand, sellers don’t want to seem uncouthly, insensitively ambitious; and then again they most certainly don’t want to seem desperate: “Some of the prices are so egregious and greedy,” a broker who has one of New York’s biggest listings said this week. “Why would you put the thing on, have friends speculate on why you would or wouldn’t be selling? You do it quietly, and if someone gives you the right number, then great.”

Considering that no single piece of New York residential real estate has ever sold for more than $53 million, is it slightly awkward to be asking $80 million for an apartment this winter? “No, I don’t think so,” said Sotheby’s broker Eva Mohr, who confirmed that she’s handling Ms. Tillotson’s penthouse, and will be the listing broker if it officially comes on the market. “I think people have something in their mind, and if that’s what people want to ask, then that’s what they’ll ask when they’re ready to ask it.”

Ms. Mohr wouldn’t discuss her client or the apartment except to say, “It feels like you’re sitting on top of the world. You can see all the way to the Tappan Zee Bridge, and you can see all the way up to Connecticut, and all the way over to Pennsylvania.” She paused and thought about that, then said, “I think it’s safe to say you can see all of New Jersey.”

Until recently, quiet listings were mostly reserved for monolithic American families, like Jacqueline Onassis’ and Laurance Rockefeller’s co-ops on Fifth Avenue, or oddities like broker Paula Del Nunzio’s $37.5 million townhouse listing at 18 East 80th Street, which belonged to the Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels’ stepdaughter.

The financial catastrophe has made quiet listings much more common. Last May, a biomedical venture capitalist was reported to be asking $90 million for his duplex at Robert A. M. Stern’s limestone dreamland 15 Central Park West, even though he had just bought it for $30 million. By November, the duplex next door that the drug-benefits mogul and major Republican donor Richard O. Ullman had bought for $23.5 million was available for $75 million.

A month earlier, the elegantly Virginia-voiced, monogrammed-shirt–wearing uptown broker Edward Lee Cave had let it be known that the philanthropist Courtney Sale Ross’ duplex at 740 Park Avenue was available for an unspecified tag over $60 million. “There’s a certain group of brokers in New York that have the best, and you go to them for the best,” Mr. Cave said this week, though he wouldn’t comment on the apartment. “And they market things in an entirely different way from the way normal properties are marketed—and for normal in New York I mean even a 35-to-40-million-dollar apartment.”

In late January, The Observer reported that Les Wexner, whose Limited Brands conglomerate owns Victoria’s Secret, hired two brokerages to unofficially list his 834 Fifth apartment—which he bought last decade for $9 million—for $60 million.

Are quiet sellers like Mr. Wexner and Ms. Ross simply trying to preserve their privacy, if not their dignity? “Dignity is a good word, thank you for mentioning it,” Mr. Cave said. “You don’t just have the best apartments in New York on the market for House and Garden tours. If you put them into, say, the computer and all of that, you’re going to get the curiosity seekers, and it won’t have the absolute exclusivity of the best of the best. I think it’s exactly like Harry Winston’s. You don’t see ads in the paper for a 35-carat D-color flawless.”

mabelson@observer.com