Register Wednesday | May 25 | 2022

Status For a Song

Buying big and ridiculous things may be easier than you think

It’s what the rich have always feared: bourgeois forces are on the move. No longer do the middle classes have to make do with suvs and fendi bags and burberry scarves. Over the past fifty years, economic and political transformations have put the most exclusive benchmarks of privilege on the market.

Used to be a castle became yours in one of two ways: you inherited it or you built it yourself. Heritage be damned; twenty-first-century citizens can now purchase a private palace for under $100,000 US in former Soviet territories like Poland, the Czech Republic and East Germany. If you’re feeling especially upscale, ask your real estate agent to show you some places in France’s Loire Valley, where you can pick up a château for as little as $500,000 US. The catch? These are fixer-upper castles, converted or abandoned or seized by the state. According to Sotheby’s International Realty, which handles citadels throughout Europe, many of the factors that led to the abandonment of these dwellings—communism, high property taxes—no longer exist, and more prestigious properties are changing hands now than ever before. Start off by taking a look at, which provides photographs and profiles of available properties. If bush league websites aren’t to your taste, you can always consult one of the many directories published by a specific country’s heritage organisation. Scotland’s Buildings at Risk Register, for example. This online index provides contact information for a dwelling’s current owner and offers helpful, if excessively British, advice such as “potential purchasers should always approach owners with tact, diplomacy and sensitivity.” If a particular castle piques your interest, the next step is to evaluate renovation costs. Edinburgh-based restoration architects Simpson and Brown estimate a minimum outlay of $1 million US (another source suggests $65 to $95 US per square foot). Architect James Simpson also advises palace-seekers to hire an archaeologist or architectural consultant, as many countries have the power to veto planned improvements to heritage sites. Nonetheless, owning a castle may be well worth the hassle: if your castle was once the head of a medieval barony, this “theoretically entitles [you] to be called Baron or Baroness so-and-so,” says Simpson. “It’s quite meaningless.”

Sick of long lineups? Invasive security checks? Other people’s wailing offspring? Perhaps it’s time to purchase a jet. Since 9/11,
both airlines and private owners have been shrinking their fleets. Montreal-based Bombardier, for example, sells both new and used versions of its Learjets, with prices beginning at over $3 million US. Or you can always turn to the Internet, with its endless jet-trading sites and, of course, eBay (at the time of this writing, nine private planes and one helicopter were up for auction, with asking prices ranging from $25,000 to $5.8 million US). even allows you to “add to cart” a L39 Russian Air Force jet. No matter how rich you are, however, private ownership is not worth the trouble unless your time is more valuable than maintenance, fuel, storage, insurance and pilot expenses (a Learjet, for example, costs about $250,000 US a year to maintain, with flight costs of up to $840 US an hour). If your time is not that valuable, but you still hate airline food, you might consider the latest trend in private aviation: fractional ownership. According to the National Business Aviation Association, in 2003 there were 5,827 fractional jet owners in the United States using 776 planes—up from 2000, when 3,834 people flew on 696 planes. NetJets, an international private-fleet owner, recommends fractional ownership to those who fly 50 to 400 hours a year. The company has also partnered with Marquis Jet (yes, the same company featured on The Apprentice) to sell flight cards that allow you to pay for a private jet by the hour; a minimum purchase of twenty-five hours is required, and prices start at $110,000 US. The crafts are available 365 days a year, will fly you directly to your final destination (instead of routing you through a major airport) and can even be stocked with on-flight food from a restaurant of your choice.

In the 1980s, an urban legend circulated that American Express had put out a credit card with no limit. Maybe the card existed or maybe the company simply knew a good idea when it saw one, because in 1999 American Express unveiled a black-coloured card called Centurion with an annual fee of $1,000 US (now $2,500 US). The Black Card comes with a litany of benefits one generally associates with wealth, but that the wealthy probably don’t need: bonus miles and automatic upgrades on leading airlines, free companion tickets in business class, free nights at top hotels, on-call personal shoppers, concierge services and access to hard-to-reach places like the fields of major-league baseball venues. The Wall Street Journal has called the Black Card “one of the most-coveted status symbols around.” In 2004, Santa Monica–based Stratus Rewards teamed up with Visa and US Bank to release an equally monochromatic rival. The Stratus White Card raises the bar on consumer rewards: instead of frequent flyer miles, it allows you to accrue points for time on a private jet; instead of sports venues, it offers dinner with the widow of former Egyptian president Anwar Sadat and access to off-limits areas of the pyramids. To receive the Stratus Rewards Visa, you must get your name on a waiting list and then presumably be given the credit vetting of a lifetime. As for the Black Card, the Wall Street Journal reports that there are only two ways to qualify: get a recommendation from a senior AmEx executive or spend at least $150,000 US on one of the company’s other cards. If you charge your castle or your private jet to your credit card, you could obtain two status symbols for the price of one.

Along with time, privacy seems to be one of the most valuable commodities of the well-to-do. Billionaire Richard Murdoch once assembled the managers of his empire on the private island resort of Hayman so they could meet without intrusion. British tycoons David and Frederick Barclay own the Channel Island of Brecqhou. The Carnegie family has maintained a presence on Cumberland Island off the coast of Georgia for over a century. And now, according to the extensive online property-listings service, that kind of privacy is available to anyone. “The days when islands were the exclusive status symbols of the rich and famous are long gone,” says the website, and proves it with listings as low as $94,000 US. That’s for Kirby Island, twenty acres of wilderness off the coast of Nova Scotia (Canada has more private islands for sale than any other country). While a tropical paradise may be your ideal, you should remember that prices increase the closer you get to the equator. Costs also vary depending on the level of development. Vladi Private Islands, which has been brokering waterbound retreats for thirty years from its offices in Hamburg and Halifax, offers expert guidance in how to provide your private sanctum with amenities like running water, electricity and telephone service, should they not already be set up. But be warned: buying an island can sometimes mean taking responsibility for those who already live there. Just ask Keith Schellenberg, the former laird of Eigg, an island that lies ten miles off the Scottish coast. In 1994, years of bad blood with the island’s residents culminated in the mysterious torching of Schellenberg’s Rolls Royce; he sold Eigg the following year for £1.6 million. (The islanders had the last laugh, though; in 1997, the community-owned Isle of Eigg Heritage Trust purchased the property from Schellenberg’s successor.) With all the islands on the market right now, buyers can afford to be a little picky: Vladi advises its clients to research the cultural climate, political systems, regulations and languages before purchasing. According to William Jackson of multinational real estate firm Knight Frank, one advantage to an island investment is that it is never hard to resell. Islands will always appeal to writers and artists, he says, because “their attraction is escape.”

There are many forms of election-and vote-buying in the world. Some are perfectly legal, of course, while others are morally murky. The most direct and obvious cases are often found in developing countries. A survey that examined the 2002 election in Brazil, where voting is required by law, revealed that 3 percent of the electorate may have sold their ballots. That’s 3 million people. Gallup had even more dismal news about Argentina, where in 1999 24 percent of respondents said they knew someone who had sold his or her vote. Like most items up for sale, the market value of votes can fluctuate. In one local election in Manila, votes were a steal at 30 pesos (60 US). Compare that with the Taiwanese county of Hualien, where voters were given up to 2,000 Taiwanese dollars ($60
US) to help tilt a by-election. These amounts seem small when compared to more legitimate versions of vote-buying. Who can forget Jean Chrétien’s multi-billion-dollar spending spree before the 2000 general election? More recently, Australian prime minister John Howard was accused of spending $6 billion US of public money to make his party seem more attractive before the country’s October
election. “This,” said his opponent, “is the mother of all clearance sales.” (A successful one, too. Howard won the election handily.) These days, though, it’s not just politicians who are doing the buying. During the recent American election, George Soros donated over $18 million US to various liberal causes working to oust George W. Bush from the Oval Office. The response from the Republican National Committee was predictably blunt, if not libellous: “George Soros has purchased the Democratic Party.”