If any business should know about the possibility of dramatic appreciation, it's a storied auction house. And moreso, if any business should know that gentility and collegial understandings often fall by the wayside when huge sums of money are on the line, it would be Sotheby's. When Sotheby's sold the building housing its New York location for $175 million in 2002, it probably seemed like a smart move. The company was finally clearing out of the clouds of a price-fixing scandal, an expensive expansion of the premises was complete, and the prospect of a large cash infusion that would leave the company without the pressures of debt must have seemed attractive. Especially if Sotheby's could sell its New York home to someone who understood what the business was all about, like a real estate magnate with a sizeable art collection who was also well-integrated with the highfalutin circles who buy and sell such things.
Aby Rosen was all of these things and purchased the building housing Sotheby's for $175 million. He soon unloaded 90% of the property to a German investment group with terms that netted him a quick $10 million profit. Two years later, however, Rosen could see that the Manhattan real estate market was not slowing and bought the building at 72nd St. and York Ave. back from the Germans for $320 million. Now, Rosen is ready to profit much more than his initial score of $10 million. He's putting the building on the market with an asking price of half a billion dollars.
Sensing (probably correctly) that such a price would lead to an enormous increase in lease payments down the line, or eviction in favor of a building conversion to higher-priced residencies, Sotheby's is objecting to any sale. The auction house is arguing that it should have been offered the right to buy the building from Rosen back in 2005, when he was assuming full ownership back from the German investment group. Such real estate legal squabbling is frankly over our heads, but it seems a bit peevish for Sotheby's to complain two years after the fact that it wasn't offered a chance to make a counter-offer on a deal it must have known about at the time. Regardless: the lesson is that shared social and business circles and a patina of gentility engendered by expensive art are no protection against the brutal bloodsport that is New York real estate.