Yesterday, Tamir Sapir, a former cab-driver who struck it rich in Russian oil, and used the proceeds to invest in Manhattan real estate...signed a contract to buy a Fifth Avenue mansion for $40 million.
Said Mr. Sapir on his purchase, "I don't know if it's a bargain or not, but it looks like a bargain."
Tamir Sapir has a past that is best described as "colorful." A former journalism student, Mr. Sapir left the Soviet republic of Georgia in 1973 with a tourist visa to Israel. After stops in Germany and Louisville, Kentucky, he settled in New York in 1976. His first job in New York City was driving a cab. Eventually, he saved enough to make a down payment on his own medallion (the process in NYC that enables one to purchase their own taxi)...and then borrowed against the medallion to open an electronics appliance store on Canal Street that catered to Soviet diplomats. Selling Zeniths and other American goods to product-starved Cold Warriors won him favor with the men who would later become the moguls and shakers in the former Soviet states.
These connections gave him entree into the business of shipping Soviet oil to American companies. Sapir expanded his wealth during the recession of the early '90s, when he bought 2 Broadway in lower Manhattan for $20 million in cash. At the time the property was considered "unrentable...then the dot-com revolution hit, commercial property rates soared, and 2 Broadway's value climbed to $300 million.
In 2001, Mr. Sapir was involved in a nasty divorce from his wife of 29 years, Bella.
In one incident, Mr. Sapir was ordered by a judge not to spend more than $100,000 at a time without notifying the court. However, Mr. Sapir did just that when he stopped at an Atlantic City casino while sailing his yacht to Florida from his 11-acre estate on Long Island. Lady Luck smiled on Mr. Sapir as he returned to his 160-ft yacht with $1.14 million in winnings. The judge determined that since Mr. Sapir had deposited his winnings in a joint account, he could not be held in contempt. No harm, no foul...so to speak.
The judge also refused to find Sapir in contempt for buying himself a new Bentley, because he also purchased one for Bella, the mother of his three adult children.
The price that Mr. Sapir paid for the 1901 Beaux-Arts mansion, on the corner of 82nd Street and Fifth Avenue, is the highest ever paid for a Manhattan town house...although it is less than the original asking price of $50 million. The building is the former residence of the late tobacco heiress, Doris Duke. It has 11 marble fireplaces, three elevators, gold-leaf trimmed fixtures, and a sweeping brass-and-wrought-iron staircase. Mr. Sapir plans to use the bottom five floors as a gallery to showcase his art collection. He is a collector of sculpture and European ivory. He is considering moving into the penthouse on the sixth and seventh floors with his companion, Elena Ponomareva, and their 2-year-old daughter.
"It's not easy being a billionaire," Tamir once said.