Comedian Stephen Fry once quipped “Estate agents: you can’t live with them, you can’t live with them”. Let’s face it, property sellers don’t exactly have the best reputation. So when I was sent on an editorial assignment earlier this summer to spend the day with one of Monaco’s top real estate agents, I was a little apprehensive. Monaco is larger than life, a place where image is rather important, and I wondered what the ultimate Monégasque real estate agent might be like, where in more modest settings these professionals are stereotyped as loud-suit-fast-car-driving egocentrics.
Not your average estate agent
Pieter van Naeltwijck (or Peter von Nitwit, as I understand he is affectionately known to his Topshop boss chum Sir Philip Green) is a real estate agent at the very top of his heap. He is the go-to man for business tycoons, stars and Russian oligarchs wanting to buy up a piece of Monaco or the Côte d’Azur. His target market is the richest 5000 people on earth.
For all Monaco’s glitter however, discretion in the Principality counts for everything. Pieter, while Dutch by birth, has been living and working in Monaco since the early 1980s and knows the ropes. Softly spoken (in fluent French, English, Dutch, German or Italian) and simply – though immaculately – dressed, he is the epitome of discretion. Not only do his property portfolios display no prices; his mobile phone number isn’t even printed on his business card. I’m not entirely sure how potential clients get in touch with him, but the right ones apparently do.
Penchant for cars
This is an estate agent who doesn’t need to draw clients in with an eye-catching shop window. In fact, one barely notices his unremarkable office, situated less than a minute from Monte Carlo’s prestigious Casino Square. Not in my case anyway, I walked straight past it the first time, even though I had the address and was looking for it.
We met there with Jelte, a feature writer for Elsevier magazine (Holland’s answer to The Economist) who had flown down to interview Pieter, but our stop at the office was brief. Its plush wood panelling and models of supercars in glass cases are apparently not the key to softening Pieter’s clients’ hearts and purses – he explained that he’s never in his office. Most of his major deals happen round the corner in a very run-of-the-mill pavement café.
The photographer agency in Holland had briefed me that villa photography in Monaco and Côte d’Azur surrounds would be the main requirement of this assignment. The rest of our morning was spent cruising around in Pieter’s other, relatively understated, office – a big, shiny, black Range Rover – to photograph some of the pads currently in his portfolio (I say ‘relatively understated’ – his other car is a Ferrari).
A bargain at 35 million
“Monaco, where else?” Pieter is proud of the tagline he came up with, although the only place I saw it printed was on his business card (the rhetorical question replacing his phone number). In Monaco’s small world of the super-wealthy, advertising is not cool – but belonging to the right social circle certainly is. Pieter, whose near neighbours are Roger Moore and Formula One driver Lewis Hamilton, certainly appears to know everyone worth knowing. We could have probably reduced the duration of our tour by an hour if Pieter had not been pausing to “ciao“/”bonjour“/”hi” the right people strolling along the pavement (and then tell us afterwards which corporation / nightclub / superyacht each owns).
Van Naeltwijck is a smooth mover indeed. Even I, humble photographer, started to think that the gorgeous villa on nearby Cap d’Ail, just over the border in France and built in the 1920s at the request of Greta Garbo, was really rather reasonably priced at €35 million. And indeed, despite working with individuals whose assets dwarf the GDP of certain countries, Pieter still has to handle disappointed clients. As he explains, the Principality of Monaco itself is geographically restricted, with an area of only 2 square kilometres. The vast majority of property here consists of apartments – however much money you throw in, you can’t buy a detached villa with gardens here. His clients don’t always find this easy to accept (fair point. I’d expect more than a flat in a tower block for several million euros).
Wined and dined
Sometimes, being an assignment photographer in the South of France has its perks, whether thanks to the weather and ever-nearby beaches of the French Riviera, or access to weird and wonderful locations and subjects. Not least though is the advantage of being present when a portrait subject for an editorial piece is trying to win over a journalist by inviting them to a stupendous lunch. In such situations, not inviting the photographer too would be churlish.
The Monte-Carlo Beach Hotel has a restaurant where Pieter regularly wines and dines his potential clients. Taking a few photographs of the place was therefore essential, before sitting down to a fine, 3-figure meal. The hotel is owned by the Société des Bains de Mer (S.B.M. – a company that is mainly owned by the Monégasque government and the Prince) and this means one thing to a photographer: the absolute necessity of filling out forms in advance to obtain a formal written authorisation from the press office to be able to take photos on site. I fully realised the extent of Mr Van Naeltwijck’s influence then, in the small wave of his hand to the maître d’hôtel, which led to a call and a subsequent whisper “Oui madame, of course you can photograph here“.
Most expensive flat in the whole world
Although initially distracted by an olive oil tasting session, I listened with interest to discussions during lunch, and was amused that Jelte’s line of questioning to find out about the man hidden behind the estate agent never seemed to quite meet its mark. Pieter had little to say about his parents, was reluctant to talk about his family and any questions about his friends and leisure time triggered anecdotes about visiting members of Middle Eastern royal families and what sounded like Monégasque networking events. Even the question “If you could do anything in life, what would you do?” didn’t make Pieter pause for much thought. “My greatest dream is to sell the apartment at the top of the Odeon tower [in Monaco]“.
OK, that might seem an unimaginative answer. But if Pieter manages to sell this penthouse property, the jewel in his portfolio, it will be, at an asking price of €400 million, the most expensive apartment ever sold world-wide (some photographs I took of it under construction last year as part of a New York Times reportage on urban development in Monaco are available to view here). And that would certainly be an achievement worthy of his crowning as World Real Estate King.
‘Monaco, where else?’‘ Indeed.