Trophies On Display: In Gaga Global New York, the Loudest Listings Bag the Billionaires

Sandy Weill invited a Wall Street Journal reporter to his office to discuss his decision to list his penthouse for $88 million.

Real estate marketing is nothing new, but the spotlight has long been shunned in the upper echelons of Manhattan real estate—River House, the snootiest of old New York co-ops, is famous for forbidding the use of its name in advertising. Luxury brokerages were as famed for their discretion as for their ability to sell an apartment (indeed, the two were often one and the same). And that was when discretion meant a way of life rather than honoring a client’s non-disclosure agreement.

“I was always taught that the spouting whale gets harpooned,” remarked A. Laurance Kaiser IV, the proprietor of Upper East Side boutique brokerage Key-Ventures, Inc. “My clients do not like publicity. The people that I deal with are repulsed by the whole thing.”

“Prices are tremendously high,” Mr. Kaiser added. “But properties are not in the same hands they once were. And some of those hands are not as manicured as others.”

New York has always been an international city, but co-ops have made no secret of their preference for buyers who make Manhattan their primary address, and for those who will not draw unwanted—or really any—attention to their buildings. Listings specifically note when a co-op is pied-a-terre friendly; the assumption, of course, is that it’s not. Moreover, the strict financial disclosure requirements, letters of recommendation and interview requirements mean that acceptance to the top co-ops is virtually impossible for those without a New York pedigree. In the past, people who couldn’t pass muster with a co-op board—including the former president Richard Nixon—had little recourse but to buy a townhouse or rent.

As a result, many brokers even made it a point of pride to eschew advertising. “I don’t want people we don’t know asking us to help them, because we don’t know where we can put them,” Edward Cave told Steven Gaines, when he interviewed Mr. Cave for the book The Sky’s the Limit. “I have sold only two apartments in 20 years through advertising.”

How did he sell apartments? He and the brokers who worked for him knew people, of course. At least they knew the right people. Of the 25 people at his firm, Mr. Cave noted that practically all of them were either married to, related to or went to school with all of the firm’s clients.

But in the last decade, a seismic shift has occurred in the world of New York’s ultra luxurious real estate, a shift that is intimately tied to the rise of a class of super-luxury condos like those in the Time Warner Center, 15 CPW, One57, the Ritz Carlton and the Plaza. Condos have long drawn wealthy foreigners, but these full-service amenity-laden buildings offered trophies as gleaming as those in the top co-ops. And given the larger pool of eager buyers, they soon started selling for as much as, and sometimes more.

The landscape of wealth is also shifting. “Foreigners traditionally bought in London and the South of France,” said Kirk Henckels, the executive VP at Stribling. “But now the U.S. has become the attractive place to park money, particularly with all the financial troubles in Europe. We sort of have a perfect storm of good properties and foreign buyers, and price is no object.”

Foreign buyers have lots of money and they wanted to spend it on a magnificent apartment, but they do not necessarily have the inclination, or the social connections, to land in Manhattan’s best co-ops. As one broker noted, the co-op market may not be open to these individuals, but very big sales in mega condos are helping to raise prices for all trophy properties. (The Courtney Sale Ross apartment, which spent years on the market as a whisper listing, finally set a co-op record when it sold this spring for $52.5 million.) And as it happens, the global elite often find the bright glare of the spotlight helpful rather than gauche.

“Public relations are enormously important,” Mr. Henckels said. “Having a good story behind a property plays an important role. Foreign publications are picking them up and that’s where a lot of buyers are coming from.”

CORE broker Emily Beare, who has a $95 million listing at 15 CPW, noted that in many ways advertising and publicity have helped to make the building one of the most successful in the world. “It educated the world on the building,” she said. “We know that New York is a place where people want to invest. So how do you reach out to them?”

The looming specter of wealth taxes in countries like France and the economic uncertainty across the continent makes New York real estate particularly attractive right now, according to Stijn Van Nieuwerburg, the director of the Center for Real Estate Finance Research at NYU’s business school.

“Real estate is becoming an appealing investment and New York is emerging as a leader in the global marketplace,” Mr. Van Nieuwerburg said. “It’s tied to the emerging upper and middle classes in places like India and China. Those countries still lack a lot of financial stability, but you have people with money to invest. Global marketing is key to reaching a lot of those buyers.”

Trophies On Display: In Gaga Global New York, the Loudest Listings Bag the Billionaires