Choosing Cash Over Cachet

The dramatic downturn on Wall Street has caused an uptick in selling off pricey assets, from designer handbags to wine collections.

Patty Hambrecht had known the man socially for years, but it wasn't until he was facing a liquidity crunch in his business that he reached out to her about a deal. Last spring, he asked Hambrecht, a Manhattan adviser and dealer in high-end jewelry, if she would be interested in selling four vintage brooches by Verdura, the Italian jeweler popularized by Greta Garbo and Katharine Hepburn in the 1930s. She called a longtime client in London and a few trade sources, and within a few weeks had offers totaling in the six figures--and a 10 percent commission on the transaction.

Hambrecht, the former president of Harry Winston worldwide, says she's seen the sell side of her business double in volume as the buying side dwindles. "People are saying, 'I really want to sell now,'" she explains.

The unprecedented turmoil on Wall Street has made liquidity the new luxury. No one wants his cash hanging on the wall or around his wife's neck. And all over the country, re-sellers of luxury goods from art to Birkin bags are seeing the exact same thing: wealthy consumers, once conspicuous in their consumption, are not just scaling back their spending, but parting with some of their priciest assets for cash. That's good news for anyone in the luxury-goods resale market.

"A few months ago it was the mortgage brokers," says Stephen Bachmann, C.E.O. of Vinfolio, a San Francisco-based online wine retailer and collectors' service that purchases and re-sells wines from collections, taking a 23 percent profit margin. "I suspect we'll see more of the Wall Street guys in coming months."

Even brands like Gulfstream, that ultimate status symbol for Masters of the Universe, are not immune to people who want to off-load their assets, pronto.

"There have been some instances where we are aware of customers who wish to dispose of their aircraft" over the last few months, says Robert Baugniet, director of corporate communications for Gulfstream Aerospace.

Gulfstream doesn't assist in the resale of its own planes, and Baugniet declines to say more because of confidentiality agreements with his customers. But Jeff Menaged, C.E.O. of Chief Executive Air, a New York-based jet charter company that tracks the used jet market, says that getting rid of a plane quickly and quietly is possible even in an economic downturn.

"There is always money available to do a quick sale at a distressed price for a desperate seller," he says. Aircraft dealers will invest in a plane they know they can sell later. The seller has to pay for an inspection and repairs--which can total more than $500,000, depending on the plane--and only takes the outstanding balance on the plane (i.e. what the bank is owed). Meanwhile, the dealer has the potential for big margins. And, Menaged notes, while the market for used jets has softened domestically, it is still strong elsewhere, particularly in Eastern Europe.

Anyone peddling pre-owned Birkin bags, Chanel suits, and Manolo Blahnik pumps is also in luck. The proprietors of luxury clothing consignment stores and websites are seeing increasing numbers of customers willing to sacrifice fashion for financial gain.

"Clients are ready to part with expensive purchases--that may not have been the right purchase--sooner," says Lucyann Barry, the owner of an exclusive luxury-goods consignment shop on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, who charges her clients a 50 percent commission on consignment sales.

In the past, she says, her fashion-editor and ladies-who-lunch clients would be parting with items that were several seasons old. But for the past three months, her shop has been stacked with in-season purchases--with price tags still attached. She points to a large python handbag ($4,600 at Gucci this fall; $2,799 at her salon) as evidence.

"It's a shift in the way they are viewing their assets," says Stephanie Phair, head of merchandising at, a luxury-goods consignment website, of her sellers. They increasingly want to recoup some of the costs of old items before charging ahead with new ones, she adds.

"There's a sense that maybe they don't need two Birkins. They are seeing accessories as a tradable asset."

While business is good on the lower end of the spectrum, with a big increase in clients looking to sell one or two items as opposed to an entire wardrobe's worth, big-ticket items come through with some frequency too. Over the summer, Portero sold a $40,000 Birkin, a purchase for which the website gets a 30 percent commission. That raises a question: Amid all this economic turmoil, who's still interested in a five-figure bag?

"At the very high end, we're actually not seeing any difference," says Phair. "It's common knowledge that at the very high end of the industry, these people are immune to the recession."

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