The Man Who Sells Islands
by Ronn Hall, Conde Nast Traveler, July 1997
Technology has made it more realistic to live on remote islands. Hence a boom in buying them. Tempted? Dr. Vladi is the man to see, so Ron Hall did. THE MAP ROOM OF DR. FARHAD VLADI'S HEADQUARTERS, overlooking Binnenalster Lake in Hamburg, Germany, is organized with military precision.
Mention any of the world's islanded coastlines or ocean archipelagoes and in an instant the correct large-scale map is being opened up for inspection. "Buying and selling islands," says Vladi, "is like planning an invasion."
Beneath the map archive, banks of filing cabinets stretch along the walls.
This is the core of the Vladi intelligence system. Each of the world's three thousand or so islands of usable size and in private ownership has its own separate folder. Nothing is too obscure to be squirreled away for future reference: press clippings, historical notes, previous owners, brochures, sales prospectuses, photographs, planning applications, land-register records, tax assessments. "As soon as we get a hint that an island may be coming up for sale," he says, "we can look it up and make an immediate guess at what the market is likely to be."
Vladi flicks open a drawer devoted to France's Brittany coast and walks his fingers along the files. "I sold that island," he says, "and that, and that . . . But this island, Illiec, I would love to have a chance to sell. It's so romantic. In the thirties it belonged to Charles Lindbergh, who had bought it to escape his troubles in America. Charles Heidsieck, of the Champagne family, owns it now. Of course, I don't ask him directly if he wants to sell; he might be offended. But I keep in contact, and we have become good friends."
Vladi has been selling private islands for more than twenty five years. In that time, about five hundred have passed through his hands, some more than once. A handful of other real estate agents deal in islands, but none are so specialized or keep up such an extensive, worldwide network. In this tiny niche of the real estate market, Vladi is king.
He was still a university student, working toward a doctorate in economics, when he made his first deal. "I'd spotted a newspaper item saying that a tropical island in the Indian Ocean had been bought for just two thousand dollars. Nothing! It was this that changed my life. I knew from that moment on that I must have an island for myself."
Vladi wrote to the Seychelles Bulletin to say that he was planning a visit to the Indian Ocean in the hope of buying an island. Most of young Vladi's capital was used just getting to the Seychelles—it was in the days before low-cost air travel, and the Mombasa-to-Bombay steamer was the only way. When he arrived, the cheapest deal he was offered was Cousin Island (now in South African ownership) at an asking price of $100,000, far more than he could afford.
Disappointed, he returned home, where, to cut his losses, he approached a prominent Hamburg businessman to see if he had any interest in buying an island. The man bought Cousin unseen, paid Vladi a five percent commission, and was forever pulling out picture postcards of his island to show to business associates and cocktail party guests. It was the best free promotion young Vladi could have had. Soon he was being barraged with requests from other Hamburg businessmen to find islands for them. There was another bit of luck: The young lawyer whom Vladi had dealt with over the sale of Cousin was James Mancham, who shortly afterward was elected president of the Seychelles. Vladi was well placed to act as broker in the sale of seven of the fifteen private islands there, his first major coup.
The most spectacular of these Indian Ocean sales was to a member of the family of the Shah of Iran, who bought a coconut plantation island named Arros along with the neighboring atoll of St. Joseph in the Amirantes group. The Iranian Prince Sharam built an elaborate house there, along with a landing strip, conveniently within executive-jet range of Teheran. It was to become a valuable hideaway when the imperial family's fortunes collapsed in 1979, and it has since been a productive source of income: When the prince is not in residence, the island is rented out for millionaire holidays at five thousand dollars a night.
Dr. Vladi next turned his attention to Europe, whose Celtic fringe (Scotland, Ireland, and Brittany) is liberally sprinkled with romantic private islands, some grandly surmounted by castles, others devoted to simple farming. Vladi's main problem, in the absence of an open land register, was finding out who owned what. He joined a flying club and persuaded pilots to take him on reconnaissance trips along the coast, looking for islands displaying telltale signs of private ownership—a larger-than-expected house, for instance, or a modern high-tech jetty. Vladi followed up with coastal drives, talking to fishermen and picking up clues. As often as not, once a private owner had been identified, business followed.
During the 1980s, there was rapid growth in the island market. Vladi ascribes this to the reduction in the cost of travel, the increasing desperation to escape mass tourism, and such technological developments as wind and solar generators, satellite telephones, prefabricated and helicopter-transportable buildings, and improvements in water treatment and desalination, all of which have made islands more independent of mainland resources.
As Vladi's business grew, he set up an island-management branch in Nova Scotia, where a profusion of affordable islands has created the world's most active island market. The Bahamas, also with abundant private islands, proved to be another happy hunting ground, along with the South Pacific and, later, Australia and New Zealand. As a service to his clients, he started up an island-renting business, which in turn led to further sales.
For some of Vladi's clients, the pleasure of owning islands became addictive. The keenest buyer of all was a Swiss poultry tycoon named Dieter Kathmann, who, by the time of his accidental death in 1987, had bought no fewer than twelve widely scattered islands. His widow decided to go on adding to the collection, and not wishing to be left holding an unlucky number, bought two islands simultaneously, making fourteen.
Dr. Edward de Bono, the guru of "lateraI thinking," is another serial buyer. He currently owns three islands, all substantial: Green Island in Australia's Great Barrier Reef, Reklusia in the Bahamas, and Tessera in the Venice iagoon (which now doubles as De Bono's seminar center). "He came to me," says Vladi, "looking for an entirely different kind of island, but when his eyes fell on a photograph of Tessera, he bought it, just like that. I suppose that's what you mean by lateral thinking." Later, De Bono introduced Vladi to a well-to-do woman friend who also bought three islands in different parts of the world—so that she'd have a year-round choice of climate.
Tony Curtis, who already had property on an island—in the mountains near Honolulu decided he would like to have something more exclusively his own. Vladi recently sold him Rocky Island, a simple but dramatic island off Nova Scotia, where he plans to spend his time indulging his other talent, painting. Curtis isn't the only film actor to have become an island addict: John Wayne loved his Panamanian getaway, Taborcillo. After Wayne's death, one of Vladi's first commissions was to sell Taborcillo for Wayne's successors.
"A few years ago," says Vladi, "I went through all my old notes and records trying to construct a demographic and psychological profile of island buyers. They seemed to have nothing in common—they were all types, from all age groups and backgrounds except for just one thing: All were very strong individualists, determined to put their own personal stamp on an island. This leads to a catch-22. The more trouble a seller has taken to develop his island, the less keen anyone else is to buy it. Money spent on development rarely gets a full return."
But of course, most island owners, Vladi says, buy for emotional rather than economic reasons. It's a subject on which he gets unexpectedly mystical: "You can sense the energy of an island as soon as you set foot on it," he says. "Some islands make you feel happy; others, quite the opposite. I remember visiting a tiny island off Arran in Scotland's Firth of Clyde. There was an old farmhouse there, which, as soon as I entered, I wanted to get away from fast. It was only later that I read of a murder said to have taken place there. A man had killed his wife for having borne him six girls when he wanted a son, and then buried her under the kitchen floor. Maybe these things affect others differently. The island was called Eloly Island, and it was eventually bought by Buddhists, who are perfectly happy there, so far as I know."
By now, needless to say, Vladi is himself an island owner several times over. Both Sleepy Cove in Nova Scotia and Forsyth Island in Marlborough Sound, New Zealand, belong to him, and others are held as "inventory" by his company. So where does he go for his own family holidays? The answer is surprisingly ordinary. Maui, he says. This, he goes on hastily to explain, is because his daughter loves Maui so much; they have spent such wonderful times there.
And which island, I ask, would he keep for himself if he could have any in the world and money were no object? Vladi turns over several in his mind. There is Galloo in Lake Ontario, with its six hundred head of deer, dramatic coastline, and rolling countryside laced with small streams. And there's Gallinara, the best placed of all Mediterranean islands, just off Monte Carlo, with Venetian fortifications, an old church, no beach, but a perfect sailing harbor. But the one Vladi really covets is Fregate, one of the Seychelles' granitic islands, with its old plantation house, roaming giant tortoises, rare bird species, and one of the most beautiful beaches in the world (Anse Victorin). It is one of the islands Vladi sold right at the beginning of his career to a young German industrialist who is currently redeveloping it as a small, exclusive resort. Vladi can now only look on in envy.