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By John Voket

RISMEDIA, June 16, 2008-For more than two centuries, celebrities have been turning to Sotheby’s to help “recycle” their personal possessions, art and collectables through the company’s global auction houses. And for the past 30 years, the Sotheby’s International Realty brand has been helping luminaries in the fashion, sports, and entertainment industry market their homes with great success.

In that time, and especially during periods of fluctuation in the real estate market, Sotheby’s International Realty agents and brokers have always walked a fine line between maintaining the company’s sterling standard for discretion, and providing the level of information required to market the often unique homes they are listing on behalf of celebrity clients.

A quarter century ago, Janet K. Milligan, a Sotheby’s International Realty agent in Greenwich, Connecticut bumped into a young fashion designer by the name of Tommy Hilfiger at a local ice cream shop. While she has enjoyed a personal friendship as well as numerous referrals as Hilfiger’s star rose to its own international brand of fame, it wasn’t until earlier this year that she got the call to list his 20,000 square foot Greenwich estate.

The particular and elusive buyer has yet to be found for property, at the time of publication, but Milligan is now helping Hilfiger market his home in Cannes, France. While many real estate pros who do not run in celebrity circles may think working with this type of clientele provides a potent double dose of glamour and financial rewards, Sotheby’s International Realty representatives in hot markets catering to stars say success is attributed as much to their professionalism as it is to their company’s world-famous brand.

Milligan, who has never worked outside of her client circles in Greenwich, believes that the Sotheby’s International Realty brand’s marketing approach is designed to provide worldwide exposure for luxury properties.

“The renowned brand name, Sotheby’s International Realty, is known for representing the most significant estates worldwide,” she said. “But a broker is unlikely to get into a celebrity/luxury niche without at least having association with a globally respected company. And the Sotheby’s International Realty reputation offers appeal to an international market of discerning buyers, as well as sellers.”

Down in steamy Miami, agent Carlos Justo is a celebrity himself, holding the record for the highest priced residential sales transaction in the history of Miami-Dade County. And prior to forming SOL Sotheby’s International Realty, Justo and his team held five of the top 10 highest-priced residential sales records, as well as, 11 of the top 25 transactions in Miami-Dade County.

Even in a celebrity destination like the greater Miami area, Justo is honest when he says it’s almost impossible to sustain one’s real estate career catering exclusively to celebrities. When he gets the chance, however, he works closely with the client and management to ensure just the right details are being provided to the public.

“Typically when we have a celebrity home, that is itself a marketing tool. The media wants to write about it but you have to be very discreet,” Justo said. “First, we want to get it in the right publications so we end up hearing from qualified clients who ask to see it. When you’re talking about clients like Gianni Versace, [Sylvester] Stallone, and Cher, it gets in the mainstream media. ”

But Justo recently sold British actor Rupert Everett’s apartment on South Beach after a small announcement ran in the Wall Street Journal. “Within a week of that small article, it was sold,” Justo said.

Justo believes people with the means are always looking for property and usually spend more to acquire a status symbol – and in the world of real estate, it’s all about saying who used to live there.

“The celebrity factor increases property value. But you can’t over expose it,” he added. “You want to have it available without making it look available because you don’t want the whole world coming in.”

Justo said when a savvy, experienced agent is at the helm, they can often drive a 10 – 20 percent premium over the property’s fair market value as long as they are permitted to drop the sellers name with appropriate discretion.

Even in those situations, agents also need to be experienced in weeding out individuals who aren’t as interested in buying the property, as they are in profiting from the “inside details” they may then turn around and exploit through the celebrity press and gossip markets.

In Beverly Hills and the Los Angeles area, Roger Ewing at Ewing Sotheby’s International Realty is amazed at the lengths celebrity snoops and paparazzi will go to secure the most inane minutiae on real estate clients.

“We’re dealing with some pretty sophisticated paparazzi, so we don’t want to help them out with a ‘for sale’ sign,” Ewing said. “Discretion and confidentiality are the most important aspects of dealing with celebrity clients.”

In sunny SoCal, which is arguably the crossroads of the entertainment world, Ewing is blessed with a critical mass of celebrities like no where else on the planet.

“We have so many celebrities in the LA area that the population is somewhat immune to celebrity status, particularly in the extreme high end real estate market,” he said.

Even so, Ewing promises all his celeb clients no open houses, showings to only to prequalified buyers, no interior photos in their marketing materials, and absolutely no disclosure regarding the owner – unless it is their wish.

“We represented Nick Lachey and Jessica Simpson in the sale of their home in Calabasas,” he said. “In cases like that, the celebrity client may be OK with allowing us to use their name to promote the property.”

Ewing said a celebrity pedigree on a property, particularly when it may be owned by multiple celebrities over time, will add to its intrinsic value and sell-ability.

Ultimately, as in the situation between Tommy Hilfiger and Janet Milligan up in Connecticut, Ewing believes the potential for any agent to succeed in the world of celebrity real estate comes with the ability to deal directly and successfully with the client – not his or her ‘peeps.’

“It’s totally relationship based,” he said. “We have several individuals who worked in the entertainment industry, and they are very successful since they came into the real estate business and have done quite well because of the relationships they made when they worked in show biz.”

In Miami, Justo also agrees that exclusive celebrity clients have a lot of layers to penetrate, but getting face time is crucial to best serving their needs.

“At the end of the day you have to serve the client, speak directly to the client,” Justo said. “This is the person who is going to live there, so celebs are just like any other client – it just happens to be Madonna.”