Buying a $3.5 million apartment -- for cash

A few weeks ago, the real estate subsidiary of Sotheby Parke Bernet Inc., the prestigious auction house, sold a Park Avenue triplex apartment here for $3.5 million -- in cash!

''All our sales are financed by cash,'' declares Charles Seilheimer, president of the six-year-old Sotheby Parke Bernet International Realty Corporation. ''We have yet to be involved with any kind of conventional bank financing.''

If you want to dine at Windows on the World, the expensive restaurant 107 -stories high in the World Trade Center, reserve your table a month in advance. If you want to eat at Lutece, the expensive French restaurant here, try calling six months early and then maybe, just maybe, you will be squeezed in.

Or, have you tried to buy a man's 18K solid-gold Rolex watch lately? Even at meet the demand. In fact, J. Walker Lloyd, director of special events for Rolex Watch U.S.A. Inc., has been trying to buy a slightly cheaper Rolex model for weeks without success -- and he works for the company.

All this may seem like an ironic, and rather disquieting, contrast to the recession and high unemployment. But the fact remains, economists say, that a small but growing segment of Americans is actually living more lavishly than ever before. And even many middle-and upper-middle-income Americans appear to be far more ''quality conscious'' -- from the clothes they buy to the food they eat -- merchandizing experts say.

''People with money are better off than ever before,'' maintains Irwin L. Kellner, chief economist for the Manufacturers Hanover Trust, ''because of the slowing of inflation and high interest rates.''

Just when high interest rates are preventing many Americans from buying homes and making other major investments, Dr. Kellner explains that many others have been cashing in on these rates through time-deposit bank accounts, US Treasury bills, and other high-yield currency accounts.

Riding the crest of this affluence is the Sotheby Realty Corporation, which is expected to chalk up sales of $133 million by Aug. 31, the end of the company's current fiscal year, compared with sales of $94 million last fiscal year. Many of these properties are in the million-dollar range and few less than

But the parent company, Sotheby Parke Bernet Inc., is being buffeted by stormy economic conditions and its overall volume of business has declined sharply during the past year. Company officials claim, however, that this drop has not been the result of a paucity of buyers.

''Buyers were readily prepared to pay new record prices for high quality and rarity,'' a Sotheby's spokesman said, ''but there has also been an obvious reluctance on the part of owners to sell in the present economic climate.''

Part of this wariness stems from the fact that while the finest artwork and antiques are often selling at record prices, prices for middle and lower priced ''collectibles'' have sagged. The same trend is showing up to a large extent in real estate, brokers say.

In New York City, some of the most opulent apartments are sold swiftly for incredible prices. Others, however, remain on the market month after month, price cut after price cut.

Sales of jewelry -- another traditional area of investment for more affluent Americans -- have also softened considerably during the current recession along with increased investment in time deposit accounts and Treasury bills. Gold and diamond prices have declined sharply recently.

But rather than impair sales, the decline in gold and diamond prices seems to have actually helped Tiffany & Co. Sales are up nearly 50 percent this year, a Tiffany spokesman says.

In Dallas, Keith Nix, director of public relations for Neiman-Marcus, a retail chain synonymous with quality, reports that ''we see people in all our stores upgrading their buying. By this, I mean perhaps buying less but buying finer quality things.''

A spokeswoman for the National Retail Merchants Association here in New York agreed that more Americans are sacrificing quantity for quality. Yet she contends that if the economy continues as it is, even the rich may have to limit their appetite for quality.

Clint Wade, a highly respected public-relations consultant here, says ''the rich will never cease to buy what they want, particularly if they feel (some piece) of jewelry or art will not come back on the market.''

Mr. Wade represents a Fifth Avenue antique store called La Vieille Russie Inc., which sells old Russian art and jewelry. This store can't keep enough items in stock to satisfy its clientele. Some of them are not the super-rich one might expect. They are middle-income people who appreciate art for its beauty and investment value -- and sometimes buy a Faberge egg or gold-encrusted porcelain ''on time'' just as one would a refrigerator.

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