On Monday, the rare-maps dealer W. Graham Arader III was in the passenger seat of his black Mercedes SUV, thinking about all the wealthy people who have not bought his 12,000-square-foot, 22-room, 10-bedroom townhouse at 1016 Madison Avenue. “People have been clubbed to death by recent events,” he said. “The seals in Alaska had it better under the fur traders that came up and clubbed them to death. They’ve been clubbed to death.”
His mansion’s tag was cut in February from a city-leading $75 million to $65 million. Last month, records show, it quietly left the market.
“I think the era of mega-sales is definitely over; we all know that by now,” Brown Harris Stevens managing director Sami Hassoumi explained this week. Three years ago, he sold the city’s most expensive townhouse, the $53 million Harkness Mansion, which he’s reportedly now marketing for millions less than it cost.
Kirk Henckels, the bow-tied director of Stribling Private Brokerage, calls it the end of the trophy: Prices are plummeting for New York’s most hilariously expensive listings, like his Astor duplex at 778 Park Avenue, and the wildly rich, even the billionaires, are buying prudently, if at all.
But along with top brokers’ stoic acceptance that the good days are over is a grinning confidence that they’ll be back. The almost needlessly titanic trophy sale will return, they say, but it will take years.
THINGS WERE DIFFERENT VERY recently. Last year, a hedge fund manager and his young wife spent $46 million on a duplex penthouse at 1060 Fifth Avenue, more than a New York City co-op had ever cost. It’s not that the place was even in pristine shape—its two levels were uncombined—it’s that New Yorkers were clamoring to pay awesomely unreasonable premiums to own glittery Manhattan real estate, even as the national housing market collapsed.
The sums were literally unprecedented. In July, without doing major work, the couple sold the penthouse for $48.9 million, retaking the co-op record from a $48 million deal at 2 East 67th Street that had closed two weeks earlier. At that sumptuous apartment house, three apartments are now on the market asking a total of $103 million. A fourth was pulled last month without a closed sale.
“Money had no meaning,” Mr. Henckels explained Friday. “You had to club them away. And now you’re out there pulling them in the door.”
John Burger, who listed the 1060 Fifth apartment when it sold for $46 million, pointed out on Friday that hugely posh buildings used to have only one apartment on the market at a time—“and the buyers would be lined up at 30-minute intervals in the lobby waiting to see it.”
It was the magical tautology of New York luxury real estate: Supremely grand homes sold grandly because they were supremely grand homes! Humdrum technicalities like price per square foot were beside the point: Proper co-ops don’t even share square footage numbers. “If somebody loved something, and the asking price seemed 5 or 10 percent too high, they didn’t care,” said Mr. Burger, who was talking in a Hamptons garden where blue jays and cardinals and catbirds were chirping. “Time would solve the fact that they were paying a premium.”
But that’s not what happened. The week that Lehman collapsed, the high-end Brown Harris Stevens broker Kathy Sloane told 20/20 that Manhattan’s finest co-ops “may have already lost a fourth of their value as a result of the financial crisis.”
Not only were brokers panicking, but there was panic about their panic. Even before Ms. Sloane’s interview aired on television, Brown Harris’ aristocratic president Hall F. Willkie issued a press release calling her comments “completely speculative, and at times factually incorrect.”
As it’s turned out, any high-end New York apartment that’s lost only a fourth of its value would probably be considered lucky. This month, deeds show, a 26-foot-wide, 20-room mansion at 18 East 82nd Street sold for less than half its original $29 million asking price. Even if brokers are now mostly serenely acknowledging the market’s downfall, one of the city’s top townhouse brokers heard about that sale and said, “Fourteen point three million for that building? You’re positive?”
EVEN BILLIONAIRES ARE BUYING modestly. So far this summer, the pharmaceuticals mogul Michael Jaharis has paid $6.7 million for an apartment on Fifth Avenue, a weirdly paltry sum for the neighborhood; and the family of hedge fund billionaire Steven A. Cohen bought a downtown duplex for $2.7 million, about a third of what he spent on Damien Hirst’s shark piece.
“No matter how many billions you had, you have fewer billions,” said Richard Wallgren, the sales director at Robert A. M. Stern’s limestone-caked 15 Central Park. The broker said he’s been dealing with tycoons who are suddenly asking for comparable sales figures. “They don’t want to pay too much. It’s that simple.”
“Some people are concerned; some people are concerned what others will think,” said Paula Del Nunzio, another broker who worked on the record-holding $53 million Harkness deal. “If you work for a public company, you’re damned scared. You’re very, very careful, because you don’t want it to become an example of gross greed inadvertently.”
Mr. Wallgren briefly listed a 15 Central Park West penthouse last year for $80 million, even though it had been bought for $21.5 million. It was taken off the market in October, listed again in February for $47.5 million, and, records show, taken off the market in early May. Mr. Wallgren would not comment, except to say that it hasn’t been sold or rented.
Last week, The Observer reported that only one of the 10 Manhattan residential properties asking over $45 million in late 2008 has sold. (The $80 million Central Park West listing wasn’t included in that tally because it had been temporarily taken off the market. Nor was Mr. Arader’s mansion, which had been marketed chiefly as an art gallery.)
On July 16, a duplex at 1030 Fifth Avenue that had come on the market at $47.5 million was reportedly cut to $19.9 million. A day after that, the $51 million tag for Trump Park Avenue’s duplex penthouse was chopped $20 million to $31 million.
WILL THE ERA OF the deliberately conspicuous trophy sale return? “Just sit tight and wait,” Mr. Hassoumi said.
“Every 25 years, cycles come and people say, ‘That’s it! It’s not happening again!’ said Leighton Candler, who worked on both of the record-setting deals at 1060 Fifth Avenue. “But of course it will.” Ms. Candler was raised in a 38-room mansion, but her family moved out when her father, an eccentric Coca-Cola Company heir, went bankrupt. “Everything comes around again and again.”
“The market readjusts,” Mr. Burger said. “The question is, will it take three years or will it take five years?”
“The euphoria has passed—for a very brief period of time. And when it comes back, we’ll put it back on,” Mr. Arader said about his Madison Avenue mansion. “I shouldn’t have said ‘clubbed to death’—they’ve been clubbed unconscious for a few years. And they’ll be back. And they’ll be bidding on properties for their trophy wives again.”
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