Billionaire-Espionage Art Project Favorite 

Practitioner: 

Date: 

Mar 8 2021

Location: 

New York City

The Hungarian artist, undercover as an oligarch, infiltrated Manhattan’s ultra-luxury high-rises with her fake husband, Zoltan, for a book of intentionally unartful photos.

Four years ago, during a three-month artist’s residency in Brooklyn, Andi Schmied, a photographer from Budapest, visited the Empire State Building and was surprised to see so many taller skyscrapers. She immediately wanted to shoot photos from their top floors, but she quickly learned that these glass minarets were mostly new luxury residences—private in the extreme. “What is my way to get in?” she wondered.

Schmied, then thirty, decided to impersonate a prospective buyer or renter, a Hungarian billionaire named Gabriella Schmied. (Gabriella is her middle name, so her passport sufficed as I.D.) To fill the role of husband, she recruited a friend from Budapest, an art and book dealer named Zoltan. She worked up a backstory: Gabriella, architect, moving to the States with toddler son, owing to Zoltan’s work. She invented an imaginary assistant named Coco, blew her art-residency materials budget on a credible outfit, made a list of fancy buildings, and, with the selling agents demonstrating no real inclination for due diligence, bluffed her way into some of the planet’s loftiest, most expensive apartments.

By this point, of course, the undertaking had grown into an art project, and an anthropological investigation. She recorded her interactions with the Realtors on her phone and shot intentionally unartful photos on a Nikon F-601—for the absentee husband’s benefit, of course. The transcripts and pictures would become the basis of an exhibit and a lavish yet mischievous book called “Private Views: A High-Rise Panorama of Manhattan,” published in December by vi per, a gallery in Prague.

“Most of these viewings were like theatrical scenes for me,” she said the other day, from Budapest. Many of them are reproduced in the text. “Sit down, Gabriella. It is really a moment for you,” an agent says, at one boxy high-rise. “Imagine I am not here. Imagine your son running around, saying words in Hungarian. . . . Imagine the smell of your favorite food going through the apartment, from the kitchen to the dining room; perhaps a goulash. Your maid would be getting ready with dinner, while you are just having one of the finest French champagnes in the soaking tub with your husband.” (Schmied: “You don’t even have to try to convince me.”)

When she returned to New York a year ago, just before the world shut down, to hit the remaining buildings on her list, she brought along Zoltan. At a tower overlooking Central Park, an agent, figuring that Zoltan, as a man, would know his wines, said, “My husband loves duck. . . . Usually, we do Burgundy duck breast or a lamb chop, and we have it with red wine like Bordeaux. He loves that.” Zoltan: “Who doesn’t?”

No one, Schmied said, ever seemed to suspect a thing. She acted naturally, for the most part, and gave her sincere opinions. She learned as she went—staging, airspace, Marni—and sharpened her act. She became a connoisseur of what she calls “convincing tactics.”

“ ‘Timeless yet contemporary’: this expression, whatever the hell it means, I heard in every single apartment,” she said. “The agents try to make the buyer feel that this apartment is the most unique thing you’ve ever seen. Everything is ‘handcrafted’ or ‘hand-selected,’ but the fact is these apartments are all the same.” Just about every one had, as its crowning indulgence, a soaking tub in front of a floor-to-ceiling window. The view, always stunning, even when it was obscured by clouds, often contained other new luxury towers, but the agents never called attention to them. They spoke of the Chrysler Building and the Empire State, or the fact that one could see planes taking off from all three major airports. “They talk about their own buildings as the most amazing thing on the planet,” Schmied said. “And yet they never mention them as something you would like to look at.”

Addressing her, the agents focussed on emotional fulfillment. To Zoltan, they emphasized return on investment. They tended not to mention that thousands of these apartments remained unsold. (One agent, on learning that she’d made a sale, jumped up and down, and hugged a construction worker, as she and Schmied, in hard hats, made their way in a hoist elevator to the as yet unfinished hundredth floor. “You better act fast,” the agent told her.) But the agents considered it a selling point that most of the apartments that had been sold remained empty, because they were investments—“a new global currency,” as Schmied said.

“I will always remember the surprise on their faces when I said I actually wanted to live there. One of their favorite tactics is to assure the buyer that no one lives in the building,” she said. “As if the fact that you will be completely alone in this monster tower is desirable. The deeper I went, the crazier it seemed that all these giant, robust buildings with this huge presence in the city that I imagine ninety-nine per cent of the people hate are not actually lived in and yet are going to be there for so long.”

By Nick Paumgarten
The New Yorker
March 8, 2021

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Notes

Since this piece was reported in the upscale New Yorker, maybe some of their readership rethought their culture of the ultra-wealthy -- but probably just confirmed the resentment and sense of superiority of the educated middle classes towards the ultra-wealthy.