Billionaires spent record sums on a rare gem, truffles and one of the most expensive paintings ever sold.
What's more extravagant than spending $330,000 on two white truffles, the pricey fungi popular with foodies around the world? Spending $330,000 on the mushrooms and then not even eating them. Billionaire Stanley Ho, the casino king of Macau, did just that at a London auction last month. According to a truffle expert, the large, aged Italian specimens Ho bought--"grand champions," in industry parlance--were not the sort you'd want to sprinkle on your risotto. "They're mostly or entirely unusable for culinary concerns," says Britt Bunyard, publisher of Fungi magazine. "They're over-mature, split open, and often have bad or decomposed parts. The truffle connoisseur would pass them over for younger, fresher ones."
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This wasn't Ho's first time spending six figures on inedible mushrooms. November's $330,000 purchase matches the Hong Kong-based developer's own 2007 record for the delicacy, and he's well-known to Bunyard and other truffle specialists as the man to beat at auctions worldwide. The high prices Ho routinely pays for truffles are inflated, as proceeds from these auctions generally benefit charities, but Bunyard is still not sure why the ultrarich flock to buy what he calls "a strong-smelling, black, dirty potato" over any other luxury item on the market.
"It has me scratching my head," he says. "When anything gets to be rare and really expensive, the rich have to have it."
Some of the other extravagant purchases made by members of Forbes' World Billionaires list this year are decidedly more appealing than Ho's decomposing truffles, but no less frivolous. Hong Kong real estate magnate Joseph Lau paid $16.7 million for two antique incense burners at Christie's earlier this month. They're shaped like cranes, the long-legged birds symbolizing longevity in China.
The London jeweler Laurence Graff paid a world-record sum for a gem, spending $46 million at a Geneva auction in November for a rare 24.78-carat pink diamond that was last on the market 60 years ago. The chairman of Sotheby's (NYSE: BID - News) international jewelry department, David Bennett, believes the emerald-cut stone is worth its enormous price tag. "Truly extraordinary objects will bring truly extraordinary prices," he said in a statement after the sale.
American hedge fund billionaire Steven Cohen bypassed the auction circuit to snap up the year's priciest piece of art via a private sale. He is understood to have spent $110 million on Jasper Johns' famous "Flag" painting, setting a record for most expensive work by a living artist. Last month Cohen won the star lot at Sotheby's contemporary sale: Andy Warhol's iconic 1962 painting of a Coca-Cola (NYSE: KO - News) bottle. He spent $35.4 million, way above the $20 to $25 million estimate.
The world's wealthiest didn't break any real estate records this year, but they've certainly contributed to a rebound in the ultra-high-end market. "I've seen a 125% increase in property selling for over $20 million in 2010 vs. 2009," says Beverley Hills realtor Joyce Rey, who deals exclusively in luxury mansions. "It's a thin market, but that growth is considerable." Texas pipeline tycoon Kelcy Warren did his part to boost sales figures, spending $46.5 million in April on the 3,500-acre BootJack Ranch near Telluride, Colo. The estate can house 50 guests, and includes a 12,000-square-foot spa and aquatic center.
Biggest Luxury Buys
Sales of luxury goods this year nearly reached the 2007 peak, at $235 billion, says a Bain consulting study. The ultrarich on Forbes' world billionaire lists did their part, splurging on art, jewelry, horses, even incense burners and truffles. Here are some of their most expensive purchases in 2010.
Carl Court/AFP/Getty Images
Art: $145.4 million
The hedge fund manager is understood to have spent $110 million on Jasper Johns' famous "Flag" painting, setting the 2010 record for priciest art purchase. In November he bought one of Andy Warhol's iconic Coca-Cola bottle paintings at auction for $35.4 million, adding to his already impressive collection of contemporary art.
Mian Muhammad Mansha
Courtesy of The St. James's Hotel and Club
Hotel: $85 to $95 million
Pakistan's first billionaire and his family bought the St. James Hotel & Club in London's exclusive Green Park neighborhood for between $85 and $95 million. U.K. realtor Savills called the hotel sale one of the most expensive ever on a price-per-room basis: With only 60 suites, the deal works out to about $1.5 million per room.
Ranch: $46.5 million
The Texas pipeline tycoon purchased the 3,500-acre BootJack Ranch near Telluride, Colo., in April, in what is being called the biggest private real estate transaction of 2010. The estate can house 50 guests, and includes a 12,000-square-foot spa and aquatic center.
Matthew Lloyd/Getty Images
Diamond: $46 million
The London jeweler paid $46 million at a Sotheby's auction in November for the most expensive gem ever sold: a rare 24.78-carat pink diamond. He's since renamed the emerald-cut stone "The Graff Pink."
Mario Tama/Getty Images
Mansion: $44 million
The world's richest man and his business partners paid $44 million for an eight-story Beaux-Arts style mansion across from the Metropolitan Museum of Art on New York's Fifth Avenue; Slim says it's an investment not a new home for him. The previous owner was real estate mogul Tamir Sapir, who ran into money problems.
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