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'Celebrity' real estate ties can be shaky — or even unreal

'Celebrity' real estate ties can be shaky — or even unreal
Agents listed Paul Williams as the architect for this $40-million Beverly Hills property, yet there are no records showing that Williams worked on the home. (Jim Bartsch)

What's in a name?

In Los Angeles real estate, a lot. A property's connection to an A-list celebrity or renowned architect can add glamour, intrigue — and a price premium.

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Name-dropping such ties is a common practice, but estates can be mistakenly attributed to notables, and the "Marilyn Monroe once slept here" syndrome has perhaps become frayed from overuse.

Agents Joyce Rey and Jade Mills recently branded a $40-million Beverly Hills property "the Harry Warner Estate," lending gravitas to a home once owned by the co-founder of Warner Bros.

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Warner's connection to the 1923 home, however, proved tenuous, given that building permits showed a Warner name entry for one year, 1946, with no records indicating further ownership. Listing details also cited "architect Paul Williams' artistic vision," but there is no hard documentation proving that Williams worked on the property.

"It was hard to read the architect's name on the original plans," said Mills, adding that the homeowner claimed it was a Williams design. "We have now taken that off our paperwork."

Williams' business papers burned during the 1992 riots, thwarting identification efforts. Today, the Memphis-based Paul Revere Williams Project has confirmed 850 projects designed by Williams out of thousands of homes that he built in Los Angeles and elsewhere.

"I have to see the proof, baby," said Deborah Brackstone, archivist for the project.

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A fire also destroyed Southern California architect Irving Gills' records.

"I'm convinced there are a lot of Gills out there that we don't know about," said James Guthrie, president of the Irving J. Gill Foundation.

Given such obstacles, and that architecture apprentices often mimicked their mentors' designs, some real estate agents opt to safely say a home was created "in the style of" a name architect.

Even when a home has been definitively tied to a well-known architect, the property, altered over the decades, may merely ghost an original design. Brackstone cited a "famous Williams house in L.A." in which "the only thing Williams designed was the facade."

She suggested that a "building biographer" be hired to sort through records when a home's pedigree is in doubt. Rey and Mills often do just that, but the homeowner declined to have the property in question vetted.

A celebrity tie-in doesn't always pay off.

Sometimes it burnishes a home with surface marketing allure but doesn't attract actual buyers, agents cautioned. And stamping an estate with a living celebrity's name can be "sort of tacky" and smacks of exploitation, said Barry Sloane of Sotheby's International. Some stories about celebrity ownership may simply be false, and many period stars rented, leaving few records.

"There are a lot of Rudolph Valentino houses out there, and some of them were actually built after he died," Sloane said. "I find that amusing."

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The concrete question to ask as real estate agents play the name game is perhaps, once again, Shakespearean: Would a house by any other name sell as fast, or for as high a price?

Some agents interviewed claimed celebrity-owned homes can quicken the sales pace while boosting prices. Although that may be true for some period-owned homes, Redfin agent Alec Traub said current celebrity-owned homes can be "overvalued and overhyped."

A recent Redfin study of 60 celebrity homes found they stayed on the market for about 36 days longer than comparable homes and sell for less than the original asking price. Such star-specific amenities as bowling alleys and horse stables may complicate sales, and the homes can be harder to show, given privacy concerns.

Homes built by name architects, however, are often priced above market rates and are sought out by niche shoppers keyed to certain names.

Case in point: Pierre Koenig's iconic Case Study House No. 21 is listed at $4.5 million, or $3,516 per square foot, which is nearly quadruple the Redfin-cited price of $974 per square foot for the Bel Air-Beverly Crest neighborhood where it resides.

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