On a fan Web site devoted to Julian Casablancas, the lead singer of the band the Strokes, and his wife, Juliet, there are pictures of the happy-looking couple in all sorts of settings: at a football game, walking a red carpet and crossing the street holding hands. There are also photographs of an apartment they own and are hoping to sell — here, some nice arched doorways, there, a guitar hanging on the wall — along with the date and time of an open house and a link to the address. Generally speaking, this is not the kind of attention celebrities yearn for.
New York City is packed with famous faces and recognizable names, and when one of those with a high profile decides to unload a home, a frenzied little dance begins. Lawyers try to shield their clients behind a fortress of confidentiality agreements and limited liability companies, and brokers do what they can to scrub the home of any hints, like photos, statuettes or memorabilia, that might provide clues as to who scuffs down that hall at night in slippers.
“Turn them over, lock them up, throw them under the bed,” said Dolly Lenz, a vice chairman at Douglas Elliman who frequently works with high-profile clients and some of the most expensive listings in the city.
“And it’s not just the obvious, valuable stuff we normally worry about, not just a pair of cuff links or a diamond ring,” she continued. “It’s anything small that can be pocketed. Because if it’s from their apartment, suddenly it’s a memento.”
When Eileen Robert of the Corcoran Group sold Katharine Hepburn’s brownstone on East 49th Street on behalf of her estate eight years ago, there were so many concerns about sticky fingers that just about everything that wasn’t bolted to the floor was carted away.
“The executors were smart enough to realize that if there was even a matchbook there, somebody would’ve taken it,” Ms. Robert said. But they didn’t want to lose the Hepburn cachet, she said, so they printed up giant photographs of Ms. Hepburn, showing her in as many of the rooms as they could find, and perched them on easels around the house. “You wanted people to know it was her house without anything actually being there,” Ms. Robert said. And with that, the showings began.
“A lot of people who were financially qualified, ‘coincidentally,’ were in the movie business,” Ms. Robert added of many prospective buyers who came by for a tour. “They probably never saw another property in New York.”
Sometimes, it is impossible to fully scrub a home of its famous inhabitant — Derek Jeter’s apartment at Trump World Tower, for example, had his jersey number, 2, inlaid in the wood floor. But when Ms. Lenz sold Barbra Streisand’s apartment on Central Park West, “everything that made it Barbra Streisand’s apartment,” like a poster for the movie “Funny Girl” covered in signatures, was carted away, she said.
“I think for sellers, whether they’re famous or not famous, there is a certain sense of violation from people coming into your home and poking around, looking in your sweater drawer,” said Elaine Schweninger, a senior vice president at Town Residential, who recently sold Claire Danes and Hugh Dancy’s SoHo loft for just under $6 million. “The only difference is no one would get that excited if they were looking in my sweater drawer.”
Listing photographs of that couple’s apartment reveal nary a statuette, only nicely designed furniture. Ms. Schweninger said she also liked to use nicknames when she worked with a recognizable person, like “H.C.,” which stands for “Happy Couple,” a pair of philanthropists she is representing now.
Some celebrities, however, are less concerned with who peeks at their favorite cable-knit.
“It’s Matthew Modine’s garden space!” said the actor Matthew Modine in a video he made with Mark D. Friedman, a senior vice president at Halstead Property, about his duplex condominium in Chelsea. “I’m going to run to Madison Square Garden; it’s just down the street,” he said later in the video. “Watch the New York Knickerbockers.”
In an e-mail, Mr. Modine explained that he and his wife removed many of their personal belongings and some furniture so the apartment would show better, but they left family photographs and their children’s artwork on the walls of the master bedroom.
“I would have liked to remove these items, and wish I had before some photos began to appear on Twitter,” Mr. Modine wrote. “But you know, this is the age we live in. Nothing is really truly private. I don’t know if there ever was a time.”
When Nora Ariffin, a senior vice president at Halstead Property, was helping an award-winning musician sell his loft and recording studio in TriBeCa about four years ago, his family photographs were stashed away in a storage unit along with many guitars, but the awards stayed in place. (Ms. Ariffin declined to name the musician for this article, but press coverage at the time describes her selling the loft and recording studio of Duncan Sheik.)
This musician, Ms. Ariffin added, also declined to take down his gold record, a monument to 500,000 albums sold.
He kept said monument mounted on the wall of the apartment’s second bathroom. There were titters and comments, Ms. Ariffin said, but no one managed to leave with the record stuffed in a purse.
“You want to protect his privacy, and you also want the people coming in to be able to imagine themselves living there, and sometimes having someone else’s pictures around distracts from that,” Ms. Ariffin said. “You’re going to move, so my advice is that you start packing. Purge!”
According to Ms. Lenz, however, when Billy Joel’s ex-wife Katie Lee was getting ready to sell their West Village town house, she took a different approach.
“She added pictures of Billy all over the house,” Ms. Lenz said.
Regardless of how tightly scrubbed or well controlled a sale may be, many real estate professionals say it is all but impossible to keep a truly high-profile client a secret.
Lori Braverman, a real estate lawyer who represents Mr. Casablancas of the Strokes and is selling his apartment (he and his wife live elsewhere), said that she once had a client with a well-known family member who was desperate to keep their transaction quiet. The woman used a limited liability company to keep the family name off the deed and, she hoped, out of the papers. No luck.
“The day after she closed, it was in The Post,” Ms. Braverman said. “The poor woman, I thought she was going to have a stroke. I think the bottom line is if they want to know, they’re going to find out.”
Though the Casablancas were unnerved by their apartment’s appearance on the fan site, Ms. Braverman said, the sale of their Greenwich Village one-bedroom, for which they are asking $1.295 million, has proceeded without incident. “If someone’s being realistic about it,” said Kathryn Steinberg, a managing director at Brown Harris Stevens, “what difference does it make? They all know you’re rich anyway.”