Like most things, the experience of the coronavirus pandemic has been very different for the rich than everyone else.
There have been notable people among the wealthy to count among the more than 74 million people in the U.S. who have so far gotten sick with the virus. Elon Musk, Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson, Idris Elba, outgoing President Trump, Prince William and so on. But typically the cases among such public people have been mild or they’ve had access to treatments not exactly available to the public. Trump’s successful treatment for a reportedly severe case of the virus, for example, was never before tried and his illness, related travel and recovery cost the American taxpayer at least hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not millions, according to various reports citing medical cost experts.
But being simply human and so susceptible to contagion is about where the similarities end for people of means during a pandemic that’s dragged on for most of this year. Travel, vacations, parties, rare jewelry, haute cuisine, even a Broadway performance are all available for those among the rich.
“Some clients are going around the world like it’s not happening, and that’s great, if you can,” said Stacy Fischer, who operates the exclusive firm Fischer Travel. The company charges a $100,000 initial membership fee and $25,000 a year for its services of luxury travel advising and concierge work. Since the pandemic, her business has remained remarkably steady, even adding two clients for a total of 175, with other inquiries under review.
The number of people who can afford such a service is actually high. Amid mass unemployment and underemployment, with the Congressional Budget Office estimating almost 12 percent unemployment at the end of this year (up from 3.5 percent pre-pandemic), the various bank accounts of the wealthy have grown, generally speaking. It’s due in large part to the continued strength of global stock markets, but such strength almost entirely benefits the rich, as financial markets have little to do with the livelihoods of average people. About 85 percent of all stocks in the U.S. are owned by the richest 10 percent of Americans, and it’s a similar ratio in other countries, according to research by economist Edward Wolff of New York University.
Billionaires, of which there are now about 2,190 worldwide (more than ever), have actually added a staggering total of $10.2 trillion to their already massive wealth since April of this year, according to an October report from UBS, a Swiss investment bank. UBS attributed the gains in large part to the strength of global stocks. But it’s also a matter of basic wages. New research from the Economic Policy Institute found that, over the last 40 years, wages have grown 160 percent for the top 1 percent of earners in the U.S., so those making about $500,000 a year or more. Meanwhile, those in the bottom 90 percent of earners only saw wages grow by 26 percent.
In the U.S. alone, home to the highest level of wealth inequality among the G-7 countries and billionaires like Musk, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, Warren Buffett and about 780 others, the rich hold 79 percent of the nation’s total wealth, according to recent data from Pew Research Center. The median net worth of the richest people in the U.S. is $4.8 million, according to Pew, up from $2.5 million in 1998. Meanwhile, the World Bank said in its October report that the pandemic will next year cause a rise in people falling into extreme poverty, the first such increase since 1998.
With such disparities, it’s no wonder that luxury concierge services like Fischer Travel and Quintessentially have remained in demand, and the rarefied world of auction houses like Sotheby’s have experienced strong demand for goods and services. People who can are spending lavishly during the pandemic.
As millions of people have been stuck in apartments or modest homes with roommates or family members, a wealthy few have been renting estates, resorts and yachts in warmer locales for family and staff to enjoy. While people waited for discounts on holiday gifts this year, luxury watch auctions have been setting records and celebrities are appearing on Zoom calls for holiday celebrations of a fortunate few — or being caught out on Instagram throwing lavish birthday and yacht parties. As most recreational travel has come to halt, some members of the upper class are still moving internationally, for work or pleasure.
“No one wants to feel confined,” Fischer said. “If you have the means and can do what you want, that’s just the world we live in.”
Fischer’s company, founded by her father 50 years ago, has been plenty busy during the pandemic, even with the many disruptions to travel, from hotel doors to borders closing.
There was an initial slowdown at the start of the pandemic, a time when Fischer said “everyone was frightened,” but the last several months have seen an increase in travel requests. Domestically, she’s been getting a lot of requests for long-term home rentals in the South and West, like South Florida, Santa Barbara and Aspen. But these aren’t calls looking for a modest family home.
“They want a place to go for winter, where they have a safe space large enough for a staff in the home and their whole family can be there,” Fischer said.
For the December holidays, people are also looking for something closer to a vacation. Fischer is getting calls to book yachts or villas in warm locales, like the Caribbean. She’s booked several private islands. Some people are booking out resorts, although a few clients chafe at being required to quarantine for a set period of time in certain countries.
“Some people are saying, ‘You know what, I’m spending $25,000 a night and I have to quarantine for two weeks? That’s not a vacation to me.’ So we have some cancellations,” Fischer said.
People are also starting to book trips for next summer, with eyes on France, Italy and Greece. But for those who want to go to the newly popular locale of New Zealand, she’s advising people to go ahead and book now for 2022, given the small inventory of luxury accommodations the country has.
“People are leaving hundreds of thousands of dollars on the table just to try and get in for 2022,” she said.
Fischer’s company has been doing a lot beyond travel these past months. She got Sandy Koufax on a Zoom call for a client. Michael Bublé sang “Happy Birthday” to another. There’s been the creation of “spa services” at home and, earlier in the year, summer camps and water parks at home. Now she’s working on getting permits for a client to build an ice skating rink at home and for another to turn an outdoor tennis court into an indoor one. She’s sourced rare bottles of wine and gotten them delivered to disparate family members, so they could do a tasting together. She’s gotten sleep doctors and chefs from popular New York restaurants to do private visits.
Recently, Fischer finally tracked down the woman who spent time as Prince Harry’s nanny in the Nineties, in an effort to find out where she could find a bracelet the British Royal has worn for many years and reportedly got on a long-ago trip to Africa after his mother, Princess Diana, died. A client wants to give the bracelet as a gift.
“I’m very resourceful,” Fischer said. “When I found this babysitter, who went on this trip, and got to go back to the client and say, ‘This is what we found and now we’re getting something from South Africa,’ that’s incredible.”
She’s also working on a number of requests for second passports, which would allow holders to travel more freely, but “in a way they keep U.S. citizenship and do not have to pay taxes somewhere else.” The requests, Fischer said, are based on a mix of pandemic-related restrictions and clients’ earlier fears of a second Trump presidential term. But she admits that some clients have called in a political favor or two to get international travel restrictions lifted, in one way or another.
For Fischer, even second passports don’t phase her. Her only real challenge these past months has been trying to give clients a sense of security when it comes to the coronavirus.
“The biggest ask is complete safety,” she said.
On two separate occasions this year, she had clients on a yacht, one in the South of France and the other in the Eastern U.S., when the captains came down with COVID-19. Neither client became infected and Fischer was able to get them off the boats to complete their trips elsewhere, but the uncertainty of the virus can disrupt even the most luxurious vacation.
Such uncertainty has led many clients of Quintessentially, a global luxury concierge service, to focus much more on smaller scale domestic travel and making sure home life is as enjoyable and healthy as financially possible.
“It used to be Carbone for four on Friday at 7:30, but now it’s Peloton bikes keeping me up at night,” said Annastasia Seebohm, chief executive officer of Quintessentially’s global lifestyle group. The nearly $3,000 in-home spin machine has been in high-demand and relatively short supply, leading ceo John Foley to address the issue in a September earnings call, saying such delays are likely to continue through next July.
Quintessentially is also members only, with an annual $50,000 fee for its highest tier of service, but Seebohm said the most popular tier is $25,000 a year. And like Fischer Travel, the company has maintained a high level of business throughout the months of the pandemic. Seebohm said member renewal rates are at the same level they were pre-pandemic. But what people are asking for has changed.
Pre-pandemic, Seebohm’s top three requests were for global travel, culinary and dining experiences and access to events like sports and music concerts. “Now there’s been the day-to-day organizing of people’s lives along with the weird and the wonderful.”
There have been plenty of requests for at-home gyms to be set up and tutoring for kids, as well as requests for “bespoke self betterment,” namely time with experts in various fields, be it artists, chefs, meditation masters, linguists or nutritionists. But a fireworks show in the Maldives was organized for a client’s birthday at a cost of $66,000 for 10 minutes. Another member is having his favorite baked goods from Reykjavik, Iceland, flown to his current home in Montana. A member in Abu Dhabi is building out a complete at-home toy zoo for their children and Seebohm’s team is busy sourcing a “huge variety of life-sized toy animals and reptiles” in the U.S.
There’s also a Broadway star signed up to perform virtually for a Quintessentially member and his family on Christmas Eve. An architect was found very early on in the pandemic to design and build for a client a “unique designer bunker for his home — with space for a media room, home office and game room.” Seebohm said rare wine and liquor has also been in demand. Her team found a $65,000 cask of Karuizawa bourbon from 1965 for a client. For another in London, it was 35 bottles of a collectible wine at a cost of between 3,000 pounds and 17,000 pounds, or $4,000 to $22,000 at current exchange, each. Also popular have been limited-edition handbags from Chanel and Hermès.
“People are sourcing rarer gifts,” Seebohm said. “They have more time to think and they’re thinking about that collectible watch or that piece of art or that handbag, rare bottles, hard-to-get pieces.”
But spending of the rich hasn’t been entirely about gifts for themselves and their loved ones, Seebohm said.
“What’s really surprised me is we’ve seen a huge rise in philanthropic requests,” she pointed out. “People have become acutely aware of their local communities and we saw people wanting to give back, where last year it was much more about luxury travel and culinary experiences.”
She’s gotten many requests to handle donations to the Black Lives Matter movement that again came to prominence this year in light of the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and countless others, and subsequent protests around police violence against people of color and institutionalized racism. But also to figure out where to send donations for the devastating wildfires that took hold of much of the Western U.S. early this fall, and to organizations aiding the homeless, food banks and care homes and hospitals.
Still, it seems safe to say that the bulk of what the wealthy are spending money on this year is for themselves. And they’re very willing to spend big to get what they’re after.
“Looking back over the course of the year as a business, obviously it’s been challenging for everyone, but our sales have been incredibly strong,” said Josh Pullan, who manages the luxury division of Sotheby’s.
The broker of fine art, real estate, collectibles and other rare goods quickly shifted to a majority online operation during the pandemic, from operating mainly through live auctions. And Pullan said such a change “has been fully embraced by clients, and at all price points.”
“Previously, we thought there was a bit of a ceiling on what was possible to sell online,” he added. “But there’s been no hesitation.”
Sotheby’s set a record in July for the price of a watch sold in an online auction with a rare 18-karat gold Rolex Daytona JPS that went for $1.5 million in London. The company started doing weekly watch auctions online out of Hong Kong in early spring, right as the first wave of the virus was hitting the West, and has since sold about $18 million in watches through the format.
In April, a record was set for the sale price of a jewel online, when a Thirties Cartier “Tutti Frutti” bracelet sold through Sotheby’s for $1.34 million. That record was broken in June, when Christies sold online a 28.86 carat diamond for $2.1 million. But the record was broken again in October by Sotheby’s, when it sold online a 102.39-carat “perfect” white diamond for $11 million to a collector in Hong Kong, currently the highest bid ever placed online for a jewel.
“We’ve seen consistently that our collectors will pursue quality and compete for it, now in either format, and it hasn’t slowed during COVID-19,” Pullan said. “One of the things we were looking at early on was would there be a discounting or ‘COVID-19 pricing’ because of the world situation. And there hasn’t been. The markets have stayed robust.”
Maybe even more robust than expected. Pullman said Sotheby’s on Dec. 1 sold an illuminated manuscript for 1.5 million pounds, or $2 million at current exchange. It was set to fetch only around 150,000 pounds. At a live auction in Geneva last month, a flawless pink diamond sold for $26.6 million, a new record for a diamond of that color at auction. At a livestreamed contemporary art auction in New York last month, a trio of rare Alfa Romeo B.A.T. cars sold for $14.84 million, just above the low end of the sales estimation range.
“That pursuit of quality collecting and bidding is absolutely still there,” Pullan said.
While such sales are happening at “the very top of the market,” Pullan said most of Sotheby’s current volume is happening relatively lower down, in the $5,000 to $20,000 price range. Particularly since the company soft launched in September a more traditional e-commerce platform, where the average product is $16,000, allowing shoppers to browse items and buy them immediately. This year, 40 percent of Sotheby’s buyers are new to the company, the most new buyers it’s ever seen.
“I’m certainly not saying that price range isn’t expensive, but it’s broader, and people are still purchasing and collecting in these categories that are passion-driven,” Pullan said. “Perhaps it’s that they’re not traveling as much, so collecting luxury goods or buying art for their home is where the spending is going.”