Farhad Vladi can find you a bit of paradise. After all, he’s already sold 1,500 islands.
Growing up in Hamburg in the early 1960s, young Farhad Vladi read the German translation of Robinson Crusoe again and again, hoping that one day he, too, would have his own deserted island. “I never thought much about having a man Friday,” he says. “I just wanted to be like Crusoe — alone on an island.”
Flash forward four decades and Vladi has turned his obsession with islands into a globe-trotting career as the world’s top private-island broker. Since negotiating his first deal 30 years ago, Vladi has sold more than 1,500 islands and compiled dossiers on at least 12,000 offshore bits and bobs that could potentially be sold.
I met Vladi at the Beverly Hilton in Los Angeles. He had just gotten off a flight from the South Pacific, on his way from New Zealand to Nova Scotia, and was impeccably dressed in a sports coat and tie, not a silver-gray hair out of place.
With his suave European accent, Vladi (as he is known to most people) has the air of a jet-setter who mingles with the rich and famous. But from the very start of our conversation, he seemed far less concerned with the amount of money he makes — or whether or not his clients are on the cover of People — than preserving the enduring mystique of island life and defending islands from those who might harm them.
“You have two types of people who buy islands: people who are trying to make a quick buck on a speculative investment; and people who have a passion for islands,” he explained. “The second, of course, are the better clients.” He went on to give examples: a German waiter who paid $70,000 for a small Panamanian island and a retired Swiss billionaire who purchased a rather sizable chunk of New Zealand and went on to become an expert on the area’s flora and fauna.
“What I really like to see,” Vladi said, “are people who are willing to put in the time, the effort and the due diligence to transform an island into a home. I tell people that buying an island has nothing to do with investment and everything to do with lifestyle. Once an island becomes a family member, that’s it! You never sell.”
During his school years, Vladi dreamed of becoming a photographer or journalist. He started a school magazine and shot for the local newspaper. His father, a Russian industrialist, meanwhile, was pushing his son toward a banking career. Vladi’s Robinson Crusoe dreams were just that. But then he read a newspaper article about a British bloke who bought an island for $5,000.
There had to be other island deals out there, and Vladi set about finding them. Given his somewhat limited financial means, Vladi began by brokering deals for other people until he had enough cash to buy his own island. His first clients were well-heeled Germans. His first deal was Cousine Island in the Seychelles, where Paul McCartney and Heather Mills honeymooned in 2002. Cousine, an undeveloped 80 acre patch of palms originally sold for $350,000 in 1971. Recently, Cousine’s current owners turned down an offer of $10 million.
In the 1970s, Vladi traded his career at Deutsche Bank for a backpack and began combing the world for islands he could sell. “I wasn’t playing in the discos,” he laughed. “I was chasing fishermen, tax people, notaries — trying to figure out who owned islands and whether or not I could sell them.” Gradually building his portfolio, Vladi transformed himself into an expert on every region with habitable islands. Nowadays about 40 percent of his buyers are from North America, another 40 percent from Europe, the remainder from wealthy countries such as Japan and Saudi Arabia.
Vladi remains tight-lipped about most of his client list. But he was willing to talk about his work on behalf of two very famous men — Malcolm Forbes and Aristotle Onassis — who, like himself, were island freaks. “Each man loved his island so much he put it in his will that he be buried there,” he said. So it is that Forbes rests on Laucala in Fiji, and Onassis on Skorpio´s in Greece. Vladi appraised both islands for the respective estates and was especially impressed by what he found on Skorpio´s (estimated to be worth $350 million). “I was very touched to see how modest and simply Aristotle Onassis and Jackie Kennedy lived on the island. They were very close to nature.”
For those who are tinkering with the idea of buying an entire island, Vladi warned that there are many factors to consider: “You have to have access, you have to get electricity, a telephone and drinking water. You have to go there and spend time. Not just by yourself, but with your family — because an island shouldn’t be a reason for divorce!”
Vladi’s current inventory includes everything from rustic little isles off Nova Scotia to Isla de sa Ferradura, a posh $42 million “rock” in the Spanish Balearics that a Dutch developer has transformed into a Mediterranean fantasyland of pools, gardens and waterfalls.
The Caribbean, Vladi observed, has become one of the pricier markets. “The majority of the Caribbean islands are leasehold, government owned or in private hands. With the exception of the Bahamas,” he noted, “there are not too many freehold islands for sale. This is one reason why those few islands are higher in price.”
So where are the bargains? “There are literally hundreds of freehold islands available in Sweden and in Nova Scotia,” he told me. “You can still buy a substantial island for under $400,000. That’s less than what you pay for a condo in New York.”
Central America is another up and-coming region, especially the islands off Belize, Panama and Costa Rica. And Vladi says to keep a close eye on the Pacific, where governments in the Solomon Islands, Marshall Islands and the Philippines may soon liberalize their land ownership laws.
Although he’s an entrepreneur, Vladi doesn’t condone property ownership laws that permit unrestricted purchase — and development — by foreign buyers. “There is a social obligation to buying an island,” he remarked, that both buyers and sellers should consider. “You speak to ordinary Bahamians and they can no longer afford these [land and housing] prices. Prices are driven up to their disadvantage.
“In Bermuda, they are doing it right. Foreigners are only allowed to purchase real estate if the value of the property is above a certain amount. The effect is that properties that are valued at less than say, $1,000,000, can only be bought by locals.” He also likes the ownership laws in New Zealand where sellers are required to offer property to local buyers first. If there are no takers after six weeks, the island can be sold to a foreigner.
New Zealand is where Vladi finally realized his Robinson Crusoe dreams. After the longtime owner of Forsyth Island, a 2,100-acre hilly, little island in Marlborough Sounds passed away, Vladi was asked to appraise the place as part of the estate. “I had never been to New Zealand before and didn’t know what to expect,” he recalled. “I walked around and fell completely in love with the island.”
There wasn’t much Vladi didn’t like about Forsyth Island — its plants, the animals, the climate — though he did tear down the old house to put up a new one. “You go into the valleys, you see the trees, and you believe you are in The Lord of the Rings movie.”
Vladi admitted there was also something intangible that convinced him this was his slice of paradise.
“To buy an island is the same as courting a woman. You can never explain exactly why you love her. It’s chemistry — something you cannot define — a feeling that you can stay forever.”
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