How Dirty Money Moved From a Taiwanese Fruit Basket to a Chelsea Condo
According to prosecutors, it took only eight steps. By Michael Hudson
(Photo: Illustrations by Marco Goran Romano)
Usually, however, there is no leak, and the identity of these owners remains unknown. “I believe in being unbelievably discreet,” says Bruce Cohen, a New York attorney who has handled transactions at many of the city’s most expensive buildings. Recently, his firm closed on two units at One57, one to a company called Metty Properties LLC and the other to an entity called Escape From New York LLC. Cohen declined to reveal any further details about either purchaser. Escape From New York LLC’s three-bedroom condo, purchased for $32 million, was immediately placed on the resale market. Asking price: $41 million.
THE SOFT SELL
The first rule of selling property to the ultrarich is that you can’t try to sell them property—you offer them status, or a lifestyle, or a unique place in the sky. A marketing video for 432 Park Avenue, scored to “Dream a Little Dream,” features a private jet, Modigliani statuary, and Harry Macklowe himself costumed as King Kong. One recent morning, at the development’s sales office in the GM Building, Wallgren led me down a hallway lined with vintage New York photographs, through a ten-by-ten-foot frame meant to illustrate the building’s enormous window size, to a scale model of Manhattan.
“If you bend down like this,” Wallgren said, stooping to street level, “you can really appreciate the height of it.” The development will top out at 1,396 feet, making it the second-tallest building in the city. Wallgren pointed to a comparatively stunted model a few blocks away. “There’s One57,” he said. “It’s about 1,000.” (Left unmentioned were plans by One57’s developer Gary Barnett to build a 1,423-foot tower down the street.)
Wallgren’s team has taken its sales pitch to events in Moscow, Hong Kong, and Beijing. “The Carnegies and the Fords and the Motts, they made their fortunes in other parts of the country, but they all convened in New York,” Wallgren told me. “So it’s not new. I think what we’re seeing is a continuation of that phenomenon. It’s now expanding to other parts of the world that have new pockets of wealth.” While robber barons built Fifth Avenue mansions, the buyer of 432 Park Avenue’s top penthouse (asking price: $95 million) will get an observation-deck view of Manhattan.
Buyers for whom money is still something of an object—very wealthy people who have a few spare million to spend on a reliable investment—have slightly less lofty options. “This is classy stuff!” exclaimed Gennady Perepada, a broker who was showing me an empty Fifth Avenue condo one afternoon. He was crowing over the bathroom, which prominently featured a bidet. A stocky Ukrainian with thin, slicked-back hair, Perepada had found the apartment on behalf of an investor, whom he would only describe as “Russian-speaking,” who purchased it for $3 million. Perepada said his clients insist on confidentiality and instructed me not to identify our location, a popular one with foreign buyers. “Just say ‘classy building,’ ” he told me as we looked down on St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
“By the way,” Perepada added, “this apartment was sold by phone.”
Perepada, who lives in Sheepshead Bay, says he acts as a sort of all-purpose consultant and fixer for his moneyed clients, who hail mainly from the former Soviet Union. “Rich people come to the U.S., and these people are busy,” he said. “What is, for these people, very important? I am asking you! To save the time.” Perepada doesn’t drag his clients to a bunch of open houses. He takes them to Jean Georges, gets them hockey or Broadway tickets, rents helicopters or horse carriages, sets them up with plastic surgeons. He says that by building a rapport, he is able to sell 80 percent of his properties with a simple phone call.
We took the broker’s black Mercedes to another appointment, at a penthouse on the Hudson. “Did you see The Wolf of Wall Street?” Perepada asked as we drove. I love this movie. You see how he works? Amazing. ‘If you trust me, you have to buy. If you don’t trust me, you need to work with someone else.’ This is my regulation: Trust me, take it.”
The further you descend in price, the more distanced the ultimate owner tends to become from the transaction. Million-dollar apartments are often traded sight unseen, based on a floor plan or a YouTube clip. Martin Jajan, a lawyer who is one of New York’s most prolific closers in new condo buildings, told me it is not uncommon for him to buy for clients he’s never met.
I spoke with Jajan at the café at the Trump Soho, the hybrid hotel-and-condominium project (his small firm has handled around 40 percent of the building’s sales). Jajan’s family is from Argentina, and his clientele primarily speaks Spanish and Portuguese. “In the ’80s or ’90s, Argentina was doing very well, and now here we find that the economy is moving further and further left,” he said. “Same thing is true of Venezuela.” For these clients, he said, New York represents “a plan B, in case things go further south.”