Nothing makes New Yorkers pant like a luxury apartment, so when the city announced a few months ago that it would auction off seven high-end condos, a crowd was expected. But the crowd proved larger than expected. Which is why if you showed up at 11 a.m. Wednesday at the Sheriff's Office on Broadway -- the originally scheduled venue -- you were greeted by a sign sending you to a far larger room in a building around the corner.
Which by noon was packed. At least 200 bidders and a few dozen gawkers were milling around an oak-paneled room on the fifth floor of the Surrogate's Courthouse, near TriBeCa, at lunchtime. On the block: the booty of a now-notorious spending spree by a family of Turkish businessmen, found liable in a massive international fraud.
And God bless these infamous characters, wherever they are. (Two are on the lam.) When they spent their ill-gotten gains, they didn't just snatch up yachts and jets, though they did that, too. They gobbled up some of the poshest square feet in New York, including two apartments in nouveau riche central, Trump World Tower on the East Side.
But the back story can wait. For now, let's figure out who is here. And ask a more important question: Is this any way to buy a home?
"Probably not," says Fred Golden, a salesman with Manhattan Realty Corp., chatting while waiting for the action to start. He represents a client interested in buying Apartment 59D in Trump World Tower, but he's proceeding with caution. "For all we know, there are seven people in Turkey who think they own these apartments. You need to do a bit of work before you come to one of these things."
By 12:30, the mood in the room hovers somewhere between heated anticipation and outright hostility. These people are tired of waiting and they share the annoying sense that they'll never land a deal with this many bidders in the mix. But they want action. Either they're going to buy a condo or punch someone.
"Let's buy some real estate!" shouts one from the back of the room.
But a burly guy with a badge has to explain the rules first: Win the bidding and you must walk to the front and plunk down at least 10 percent of the purchase price, on the spot -- cash or bank checks, thank you very much. Then you have until Tuesday to cough up the rest of the dough. Oh, and you're on the hook for any back taxes that might be owed to the city. And for all the fees that are in arrears -- monthly maintenance fees, late fees, legal fees. By the way, the maintenance fees are at least $1,200 a month. Some are a lot higher.
Many, actually. The crowd, which is filled with professionals, peppers Badge Man and reps from the buildings, and the gist of every answer is the same. You have the right to bid, and if you bid the most you have the right to march up here and hand over some cash. Now let's go!
"Opening bid of $1.5 million. Any bidders?"
It took some mighty impressive flimflamming to get us to this moment. All credit, if that's the right word, to the Uzans, a colorful clan, who persuaded cell phone giants Motorola and Nokia to loan them nearly $3 billion, to build a mobile phone network in Turkey. The Uzans really did own the license for this venture but they apparently pumped buckets of borrowed money into a worldwide shopping spree, which unfolded at a game-show pace. When the Uzans failed to repay their loans on time, they blamed an economic downturn and earthquakes. Motorola and Nokia didn't buy it and they sued. The Uzans have maintained that the United States doesn't have jurisdiction in the matter and didn't fight in court. But a federal judge concluded in August of last year that the family had told "an almost endless series of lies," and a fire sale of the Uzans' holdings here has begun.
"We've already sold a couple jets," says attorney Steven Davidson, a lawyer with Steptoe & Johnson, which represents Motorola. "The more expensive one went for $36 million."
The prices never reached that level at Wednesday's auction, but buyers weren't exactly scared off by the prospect of back taxes or liens. The first apartment up for sale was 59D, a 2,000-square-foot gem. Killer views. Massive doors. High ceilings. The works.
"All right, we have one point five," mumbles the auctioneer, a gray-haired guy in an argyle sweater. "One point five, now one million six, now one million six, now seven, one million seven, now eight, one million eight. One million seven now eight. Eight, nine, eight, nine. One million eight now nine."
On it went, until someone gave up and the apartment went for $2.2 mil. A fortyish-looking guy named David Vogel had made the winning bid. In the hallway, after he settled up, he sounded giddy.
"I was motivated by divine intervention," he says in a thick Brooklyn accent. Then he tells his story: On Sunday he went on a date with a woman named Sherri -- "a very young, very beautiful woman who happens to be a brainiac" -- who took him to a real estate seminar at the Learning Annex. You think for a moment that Vogel is pulling your leg. But his eyes roll into the back of his head when he talks and you can't fake that. At the class, he learned about buying real estate at what he called "knockdown prices." He was working on Monday and Tuesday but Wednesday morning he and Sherri did some research on the properties up for sale. Instant due diligence. And then at 11 a.m., a client of his agreed to put up the necessary money.
"I was ready to walk away if the price went too high, but sometimes a businessman has to act fast," he explains, looking elated. As the auctions went on, a few pros in the place quietly stewed about amateurs in the audience wrecking the party, bidding with their emotions instead of their heads. Altogether, more than $11 million was raised, a pittance compared with the sum that's evaporated, but a start. And for Vogel, maybe it's the beginning of a beautiful romance.
"If you could," he says, leaning in, "say something nice about Sherri."