Photos by Takako Ida
Photos by Takako Ida

New York States of Mind

Photos by Takako Ida
Photos by Takako Ida

By Rory Winston

"You want to know what it takes to sell real estate?  It takes brass balls…" proclaimed a swaggering Alec Baldwin in the 1992 movie version of David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross.  That this image of a broker should remain fixed in collective consciousness is in no small part thanks to cosmopolitan buccaneers who have steadfastly dressed a mogul's worth of riches in ragtag mannerisms while having pimped raggedy properties till they smacked of gold. With TV shows like Million Dollar Listing, building on the ideal that success comes to those whose "weight" is calculated in dollars and nonsense, it becomes hard to imagine real estate business without a dose of ruthlessness, flamboyance and well-coiffed 'always-be-closing' madness.

Entering this often-calculated arena comes one Tristan Harper, a man whose genteel European air and transparency belie his professional acumen and savvy instincts. With finely chiseled features and deep-set eyes forever combing the space around him, Tristan sits waiting for me in a chic Midtown French restaurant as though an urban planning committee placed him there. His demeanor has architectural integrity: restrained gestures, elongated posture, forthright greeting and a friendly handshake – each element attesting to a man who is in perfect harmony with his elegant surroundings.

With a charming European accent, Tristan responds to my question about how his origins influence his approach to business: "Europe is in my genes, as is real estate." This answer comes as no surprise from someone having been born, raised, educated and worked in such places as former Yugoslavia, France, Switzerland and England before obtaining a Canadian citizenship that would eventually result in his move to New York City.  His ancestors were landowners since the "old Venetian times," when an aristocratic title was bestowed upon his family.  Tristan explains: "Despite taking a different path in my studies – a path that had led to earning an advanced degree in business administrations for the arts, a career in theater production, diplomacy and international business – when I eventually settled in New York, it was my family legacy that impelled me to reconsider my choices …The past beckoned me to return to my ancestral calling: real estate."

When asked about how he got started in New York City's exacting world of real estate, Tristan gives way to a self-effacing smile. "Let's put it this way," Tristan admits, "certain clichés are profoundly true and when you come from the outside, it's not what you know but who you know. In my case who I knew were the contacts I still had overseas – some of whom, luckily, were looking to buy properties in New York. To this day they constitute a good part of my business."

As an Associate Real Estate Broker at the prestigious Douglas Elliman, Tristan has, repeatedly, broken record expectations earning the firm's 2013 Pinnacle Award, 10 consecutive annual Chairman Awards and a 2008 Legend Award, for consistently producing in the top two percentile of agents, nationwide.  However, his ability to take his work seriously without taking himself too seriously is evident in his recipe for success:  "Over 90 percent of my business grew by word of mouth. After a couple of beginner's sales, one thing led to another."  Today, Tristan Harper is a broker of choice for the elite crop of buyers and investors from Wall Street to Hollywood.

The business, Tristan explains, is as much about understanding the client as it is about finding the right "matches." "There is a lot of hand-holding involved. For instance — foreigners don't always know much about the city; they have some vague idea as to locations, but you have to be in for the full run. Choices abound, as do the limitations. Much to consider and more to reconsider." The job gets no easier with local buyers: "the wife wants one thing, the husband another, the parents the third…  It is, truly, a question of finding the right balance," says Harper. "It may sound cheesy, but it is pretty satisfying when people come to recognize, by themselves, what they actually want in real estate, and when you see that sparkle in their eyes that says: yes, this is it."

Tristan concedes that there are occasional frustrations: "People don't always listen in time.  I can say, 'this is a great deal, it works for your needs, you clearly love it, so jump on it'.  But, often they waffle, a form of hesitation sets in and by the time they eventually say 'yes,' the property is gone.  Apartments in New York move fast. It is just the way it is. This city seems to have limitless cash rolling in, but the inventory is extremely limited."

A former Yugoslavian poet once wrote, "When we pass we pass, so if we meet we meet." The idea of doing your best and then leaving things to fate is an ideal Mr. Harper abides by. "Many in this business are competitive and thrusting for a sale or the right lead. With me, that's true to a much lesser degree.  I don't believe in the pressure sell or an enormous effort in making the deal happen. In my opinion, as is the case with many things in life, sales come with understanding, and not by desperation or by forcing them.  My grandparents once told me: 'good things come to good people.'  Now, this may appear idealistic to some, but, essentially, it is what I believe in.  No matter what the score, if I do something good for you, you will be back.  If not next year, then in five.  Or, you may send someone else my way before you return.  This is the foundation of my business.  Even my self-interest demands that I do only what I believe serves my client's best interest."

In a way, Tristan Harper's is the glorified, 21st century version of an early 20th century success story – the one where the immigrant lands on Ellis Island and retains his identity and beats all odds in a single act that alters not only his own destiny but that of his new home. Tristan's highly publicized moment came just weeks after the 9/11 tragedy, as the city's real estate hit a downward spiral that promised to be a standstill.  It was then that Tristan Harper brokered the sale of an unfinished duplex on Park Avenue for over $18 Million.  It was the highest-priced transaction of the year.  "I felt humbled, not merely for the sale, but for the vindicating fact that there was someone out there who believed what I tried to communicate – there is only one New York, the eternal New York."

When asked what he sees and the best type of property or area in the city for investing, Tristan exclaims: "Manhattan properties are often considered like 'cash in the bank' no matter where they are.  People have and will always be coming to this island for one reason or the other.  And, because it is an island, it is finite. Every property in New York is – given time – a good one."  Tristan continues: "At the beginning of my real estate career, in the late 90's, there was an apartment my purchaser was interested in – on Park Avenue in the 90s.  A few of my old-timer colleagues told me: 'who the hell would live there?'  Well, less than 15 years later, who the hell wouldn't?"  Today, further uptown, Harlem, both East and West, is slowly becoming one of the hottest new investment areas in the city."

Recently, I came across a quote that said, "when we first see a city about which we had earlier read, we don't really see it. Instead, we see only what we had always imagined it to be. Then slowly, sorrow sets in and we feel it is less spacious than our imagination.  Finally, we relinquish this sorrow and are able to see the city for all its beauty in a way those born there could not."  As Tristan walked away from our lunch meeting, I understood that the New York he sees daily is one that many of us are still in the process of building; one whose structures and spaces are made of more than concrete, one whose perspective demand several states of mind. Ricky Roma , the hotshot broker in Glengarry Glen Ross,  seemed to be right about the true value of real estate when he said: "I have these properties I would like for you to see… What does it mean? What do you want it to mean?"



"Tristan remains one of a small number of brokers who stand out from the crowd because of the right combination of market knowledge, creativity in making a deal work, integrity, and perseverance."

Ed Adler
Attorney and Developer
Koeppel Companies

"It all revolves around what I call "The Harper Factor."  A charismatic, suave, outgoing, sunny disposition which exudes sophistication and confidence. It also conveys a successful outcome for his clients."

Isabel Bau Madden

"His continued success, is attributed to his strong interpersonal skills, focus, creativity and his attention to detail."

Maria Torresy
Associate Broker at Brown Harris Stevens

"Tristan Harper has it all"

Joan Greenberg
Real Estate Attorney

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