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The Art and the Deal

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From left: Rosen with Jeff Koons; Rosen with Damien Hirst.  

The outcry, with its shrill echoes of anti-Semitism, helped to thwart the brothers’ ambitions. They came to own but a handful of short-stature buildings. Both Aby and his partner Michael were born in 1960, only sons and friends since nursery school; Michael Fuch’s father, Don, was also a Frankfurt real-estate man, from Czortków, hidden during the war by a Christian family.

Aby’s Uncle Charlie had matured into an elderly playboy who bought himself a big spiffy house close by the American base and a pad in Cannes. Aby, now a Frankfurt University law student, was Charlie’s protégé. “Aby was always the cool guy around,” says Frankfurt real-estate developer Robert Faktor, who has known Aby Rosen since he was 9. “He always knew the best restaurants, the best clubs, the best vacation rentals.”

Rosen showed up in the States in 1987, beyond bullish (“Aby’s always bullish; that’s part of his charm,” says old friend André Balazs). Broker Susan Penzer remembers showing Rosen his first apartment, on lower Broadway. Its owner, a young music producer, had just died in a car crash. His girlfriend, still living there with their newborn child, now needed to rent the apartment, but the flaky board was in no hurry to convene and would quite probably oppose it. “Aby wanted to get in there right away,” says Penzer. Suddenly, Rosen and the girlfriend formed an alliance, and they moved in together. “I remember Aby sitting in my conference room and telling me he was going to be the most successful real-estate developer in New York. It was just the kind of aggression that got him where he is today,” says Penzer.

Employed at Jones Lang Wootton, Rosen proved a whiz at selling properties to German investors. The gray already salting his hair didn’t hurt. And at the clubs downtown, Rosen and Fuchs were immediately part of the party, the real money behind M.K., the supper club. Artists were nightlife’s newest VIPs: Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat. Kenny Scharf and Francesco Clemente were hired to funk up the Palladium. M.K. threw some Schnabels on its walls.

RFR was founded in 1991, when the market was doubled over in pain. Accessing funds from German backers, Aby slowly assembled a formidable portfolio of office buildings here in town, says Jones Lang alumnus Woody Heller. RFR would rehab buildings with latent charm and sometimes unload them, all the while upgrading to trophy properties with more-prized addresses.

In 1993, the duo united with Trevor Davis, a builder who grew up quietly Jewish, an outsider in Johannesburg, before taking an architecture and engineering degree from MIT and marrying American. Sean Connery–ish, an intimidating six-foot-four in jeans, Davis paraded his passions for Panerai watches, fine wines, and hunting rhinoceros on horseback.

Renamed RFR Davis, the firm saw a chance to corner the market for brand-new apartments on the East Side. Over the next several years, Rosen and Fuchs would hunt up the money while construction supervisor Davis would have perhaps fourteen residential projects going at once, several anchoring dowdy corners of First Avenue. Rosen, back then the company suit (though rarely one to throw on a tie), was its public face. Soft-spoken Fuchs ran the numbers backstage. Davis split with RFR just before an ongoing rico lawsuit flagged niggling cracks in workmanship that had caused problems at the most luxe building RFR Davis had attempted to date, the Empire.

RFR Davis was earlier than other developers to the epiphany that big-name architects could be used to market duplexes much as they’d been used to hype new office buildings. “It doesn’t cost that much more to hire a famous architect than an unknown one,” Rosen would brag, “since a lot of the work is delegated.” Some of his buildings’ best-selling authors included Costas Kondylis (Eastbridge Landing), Robert A.M. Stern (the Seville), and Michael Graves for 425 Fifth and the Impala, from the doorway of which leaps an anatomically correct copper buck. The rap on Rosen has always been that he’s heavily leveraged and owns only minority pieces in his joint-venture plays. But that’s how the game is played; you’re leveraged until you’re less leveraged. In one SEC filing, Rosen and Fuchs reported that as of September 30, 2004, they had a combined net worth in excess of $400 million and a combined liquidity of $15 million.

Rosen’s art holdings grew apace with his real estate. Looking over his blue-chip collection of 80 Warhols (and counting), the naughty Richard Prince nurse, the Basquiats, the Christopher Wools, the Harings, the Koonses, the Bacon, people wonder as they did with Charles Saatchi whether it’s Rosen or the company that owns this vast trove. (Through a spokeswoman, Rosen declined to comment.)


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