Meet the fake billionaire who is taking secret images of NYC’s richest homes

‘I decided to become someone who would get access and who belongs there’ said photographer who created an alter ego to experience how the city’s elite live

Jade Bremner
Wednesday 10 November 2021 14:50
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Visual artist Andi Schmied accessed and documented 25 of the most elite high-rise apartments in Manhattan, by making up an ultra-wealthy persona, plus an assistant and a husband.

Between 2016 and 2020, Ms Schmied got to see the views only New York’s most wealthy residents are privy to – some of the most desirable real estate in the country, including apartments in the Time Warner Center, Trump World Tower, Fox Associates’ Madison Square Park Tower, Zaha Hadid’s 520 West 28th Street building, Herzog & de Meuron’s 56 Leonard, and the penthouse’s terrace at Rafael Viñoly’s 277 Fifth, among others.

“I came up with the idea when visiting the Empire State Building, as I was up there I realised there were quite a few buildings that were equally high … I had a big desire to get into those places. I quickly realised they were all luxury residences,” said Ms Schmied, who wasn’t deterred by the privacy and secrecy of the apartment blocks.

“I decided to become someone who would get access and who belongs there,” Ms Schmied told The Independent. She pretended to be a rich Hungarian. “I started calling the real estate companies, I had a fictional personal assistant named Coco,” she said, “and I was Gabriella, married to a rich Hungarian antique dealer.”

Clouded northern view of the Met Life Tower from one of the upper floor living rooms at Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates’ Madison Square Park Tower.

Gabriella would dress the part and wear artsy but sophisticated clothing. “They would always ask me who my designer was, but I actually got my clothes from second-hand shops or basic shops, I would always say it was a ‘Hungarian designer’.”

There was no financial background check to get into these apartments, said Ms Schmied, not like medium-range apartments, some of which require financial statements before a viewing.

Clouded northern view from one of the staged penthouse bathrooms at Herzog & de Meuron’s 56 Leonard.

“Because the prices are so high, in the region of $100m they assume that people looking in these ranges would never provide financial statements,” said Ms Schmied, who said the more strange her behaviour the more normal it felt. “I could have probably gone in my pyjamas and it would have been fine,” said the artist, who would got a rush of adrenaline at the beginning of the project while posing as someone else, but soon became accustomed to pretending to be mega-rich as the project went on.

Southern and western sunset views of One World Trade Center, the Hudson River and New Jersey from one of the upper floor master bedroom terraces at Herzog & de Meuron’s 56 Leonard.

Her daily routine was “very funny,” she said. “I would live in the dark Brooklyn basement, it was a short-term rental, and I would dress up, do my hair and make-up, get on the subway and then transition,” she said. “No one ever suspected a thing,” she said of the real estate agents, “they would always follow up”.

Western view from ‘her’ bathroom from one of the upper floor staged apartments at Rafael Viñoly’s 432 Park Avenue.

One thing that struck her the most was how similar these empty buildings were, with copycat layouts and marble islands in the kitchens. The agents would highlight certain details like chinchilla mink, Calacatta Tucci or Noir St Laurent black marble.

Northern view of Central Park from one of penthouse master bedrooms at Rafael Viñoly’s 432 Park Avenue.

“They are mostly for investment purchases,” said Ms Schmied of the properties, explaining that they weren’t even decorated by people but companies who dress them in designer gear and get a percentage of the purchase price. “It’s an empty glamourous space … that was always a selling point. Don’t worry you would be almost alone here.” The apartments were roughly 7,000 or 8,000 sqm. “It was strange … you would be all alone in these huge monsters.”

Northern view from one of the upper floor master bathrooms at Time Warner Center designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill.

Some agents thought it was odd when Gabriella got out a big film camera to take a picture “but it fit with the ‘arty billionaire’ image. It was a huge piece of equipment coming out of my fancy bag, but only a few agents noticed it was film … I would always say ‘I got it from my grandfather and he told me to capture the most memorable parts of life’, I got away with it because it fit the persona. The more strange I behaved the more fine it was.”

Northern view of the Empire State Building from the hot tub of one of the penthouse’s terrace at Rafael Viñoly’s 277 Fifth.

The biggest takeaway for the artist was “how horrible these developments are for the rest of the city”, she said, “they cast large shadows on Central Park and change the flora and fauna in the park because of the lack of light, they cause a huge shift in living prices, and they zombiefy a place, because it’s dead.”

Private Views: A High-Rise Panorama of Manhattan is available to buy now from Vi Per Gallery.

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