(Story first published in the January 2, 2020 print issue of Variety.)
Political uncertainty and fears of recession have not broken the real estate market’s stride. Against all odds, 2019 was a banner year for nine-figure deals, particularly in Los Angeles, where the historic-price record was set twice within a four-month period. New York and Palm Beach, Fla., also set new milestones.
In many of the other ultra-affluent locales where the profoundly wealthy famously pony up astronomical sums for unimaginably lavish homes, prices remained extraordinarily high if not nearly as record setting as in New York or L.A., and for those spendthrift high rollers with money to burn and an unrequited penchant for insanely expensive, high-maintenance estates, there were a variety of rarefied options around the country.
Sales in Los Angeles Drive Soaring Ultra-luxe Market
While nine-figure sales were breaking out all over, L.A.’s ultra-luxury segment had its best year yet, with three transactions breaking the $100 million price barrier and a fourth close behind, at $94 million.
It was Lachlan Murdoch who captured the lion’s share of global headlines. The billionaire chairman and CEO of Fox Corp. paid an unprecedented $150 million for the venerated Chartwell estate, indisputably one of L.A.’s largest and most extravagant private properties. Located in the heart of East Gate Bel Air and anchored by the 25,000-square-foot 1930s chateau-style main mansion that was featured on 1960s TV show “The Beverly Hillbillies,” the 11.6-acre property was long owned by Jerry Perenchio, the now-deceased former owner of Univision, and includes the vacant site of the former Ronald Reagan estate.
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Chartwell’s December sale soundly eclipsed the previous record, set this July, when a buyer widely speculated to be a member of Abu Dhabi’s ruling family paid $119.7 million for the so-called Manor, the 56,500-square-foot Holmby Hills mega-mansion originally built in the 1980s by television titan Aaron Spelling and sold by British Formula 1 heiress Petra Ecclestone. No less noteworthy was tech billionaire Jan Koum’s $100 million all-cash splurge for the sprawling Malibu compound of media executive Ron Meyer. Designed by the late architect Charles Gwathmey, the eye-popping deal for the blufftop modern mansion was inked mere months after the seaside city was scorched by the devastating Woolsey Fire.
Major transactions abounded. After nearly three years, Bel Air’s so-called Billionaire estate — developed by luxury specialist Bruce Makowsky and once stamped with a wholly unrealistic price tag of $250 million — sold for a relatively bargain-basement $94 million to a French Moroccan buyer; a Chinese billionaire heir Liang Zhang paid $75 million for a glassy Bel Air mega-mansion once toured by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos; and Uber co-founder Garrett Camp laid out $72.5 million for a newly built Beverly Hills compound, an unprecedented number in the city. In all, at least 20 L.A. homes sold for $30 million or more during 2019, the largest annual volume ever recorded in that lofty segment.
Though somewhat overshadowed by the sheer height of L.A.’s price points, long-standing records were likewise obliterated on the East Coast. In Palm Beach, where the sale of Donald Trump’s $95 million mansion to Russian fertilizer billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev had stood unchallenged since 2008, two custom oceanfront compounds easily surpassed the nine-figure transfer mark, with both deals ringing in at $105 million: The first went to an anonymous buyer, the second to hedge fund manager Steven Schonfeld. According to a public statement released by Schonfeld, his family will remain based in its longtime home in New York, with the new property used for vacations.
For its part, the Big Apple also racked up a handful of banner sales, including the all-time-priciest deal for a U.S. private residence when hedge fund tycoon Ken Griffin forked over $238 million for a four-floor penthouse in a newly completed midtown Manhattan skyscraper. Eleven months later, fellow billionaire Dan Och rained $92.7 million on a full-floor apartment in the same building. It’s certainly worth noting that both of those transactions, though they closed in 2019, actually went into contract in the 2015-16 time frame — long before the much-publicized local high-end market slump. Area brokers are quick to note that while the buyers could have canceled the contracts prior to closing, they instead chose to press ahead, bucking fears of a market oversupply of new luxury condos.
Even Seattle got in on the voracious trophy-property market. In April, an estate in the tony Hunts Point enclave transferred for $37.5 million, besting the previous record-setter by as much as $10.8 million. Unlike the headline grabbers in L.A. and Palm Beach, this prize was no mega-mansion — the relatively unassuming custom home measured in at less than 10,000 square feet — though it was marketed as an art collector’s residential paradise.
These Sky-High Prices Fell Short of Top Numbers
Perched high on a prestigious corner in San Francisco’s patrician Pacific Heights neighborhood and once owned by oil heir William Getty, a freshly rehabbed 107-year-old mansion of more than 9,700 square feet fetched $27 million , a gargantuan number by any standard but well below the city’s $39 million record set by a mysterious buyer in the fall of 2018 with the off-market purchase of an elegant 1930s mansion around the corner. Down the peninsula a bit, in Atherton, consistently ranked as one of the most expensive residential communities in the country, basketball superstar Stephen Curry’s $31 million, off-market acquisition of a brand-new contemporary mansion on 1.2 gated and landscaped acres looks like pecuniary child’s play compared with the town’s reigning record, set in 2011 when a still-unknown buyer coughed up $53 million for the so-called Pine Brook Estate and subsequently spent another $23 million on several surrounding properties.
And though undeniably mammoth, the $26.7 million sale of Eagles Rest Farm, a nearly 700-acre country estate in the pretty, pastoral outskirts of Nashville, is slightly below the 2010 record set when country music star Alan Jackson sold his 135-acre Sweetbriar spread for $28 million to tech entrepreneur Willis Johnson. And in New York State’s tony Hamptons, where in 2014 hedge fund fat cat Barry Rosenstein shelled out a psyche-shattering $147 million for an oceanfront estate in East Hampton, the highest-recorded sale this year was the comparatively paltry $39.25 million an unidentified buyer plunked down for a seven-bedroom contemporary on 1.4 oceanfront acres in Bridgehampton.
Back in California’s Orange County, notoriously high-priced Newport Beach saw several homes change moneyed hands above $35 million — still significantly under the county’s landmark sale, which came in 2017 with the $55 million transfer of a Corona del Mar compound. Last year’s top-priced property in the county: a 16,000-square-foot limestone-clad neoclassical villa with six bedrooms, 12 bathrooms and more than 300 feet of frontage on Newport Harbor that Chinese tech billionaire Eric Tan scooped up in October for $37 million.
Why Not Snag a Trophy Estate While You Can?
Insanely expensive real estate was flying off the rack, but there’s still plenty left. The Mack Daddy of mega-priced properties is unquestionably financier Gary Winnick’s Casa Encantada in L.A.’s always fearsomely pricey Bel Air neighborhood. The 60-room, 1930s Georgian mansion, which Winnick snatched up in 2000 for a then bar-raising $94 million and has listed with Rick Hilton and Jeff Hyland of Hilton & Hyland as well as Shawn Elliott of Nest Seekers, sits on eight gorgeously groomed acres bordering the fastidiously manicured greens and fairways of the Bel-Air Country Club.
There are several estates in the Hamptons with sweat-inducing price tags, including a 14-acre oceanfront compound in Southampton priced at $150 million, replete with indoor and outdoor swimming pools and private golf greens, and listed with Sotheby’s Intl. Realty’s Harald Grant. And, after it first came for sale at an in-hindsight absurdly stratospheric $180 million price, the showbiz-pedigreed Owlwood Estate in L.A.’s hoity-toity Holmby Hills, once home to Cher, Tony Curtis and Marilyn Monroe, is now available through Sally Forster Jones, Tomer Fridman and Tyrone McKillen, all of Compass, along with Hilton & Hyland’s Drew Fenton, at the enormously discounted price of $115 million.
For those unwilling or unable to cross the $100 million mark, an epic, five-floor sky mansion of almost 20,000 square feet in Manhattan’s trendy NoMad neighborhood is exclusively listed with Raphael Sitruk at Keller Williams NYC at $98 million. And cleaved to a steep, forested hillside with a glass funicular that connects the cliffside main house to a waterside beach house on the scenic north shore of Lake Tahoe, the gravity-defying Crystal Pointe estate is a comparative bargain at $75 million through Chase Intl.’s Shari Chase.
— Mark David and James McClain