Even in jaded New York, a $323m penthouse turns heads

Tycoon Kenneth Griffin's pricey purchase is most expensive residential sale in US history

The 220 Central Park South tower in Manhattan, where tycoon Kenneth Griffin paid US$238 million for a penthouse. His other property buys include a US$60 million penthouse in Miami and a US$122 million mansion in London.
The 220 Central Park South tower in Manhattan, where tycoon Kenneth Griffin paid US$238 million for a penthouse. His other property buys include a US$60 million penthouse in Miami and a US$122 million mansion in London.PHOTO: NYTIMES

NEW YORK • In Manhattan, where multimillion-dollar real estate sales are routine, a hedge fund tycoon has managed to set a new standard for conspicuous consumption by paying a fortune for an unfinished piece of property in the sky.

Billionaire Kenneth Griffin spent US$238 million (S$323 million) for a penthouse at 220 Central Park South that is still under construction, making it the most expensive residential sale in US history.

What's more, in a New York tale that is not entirely uncommon, the 79-storey tower housing Mr Griffin's penthouse is being built after the landlord evicted dozens of middle-class tenants from their rent-stabilised apartments in a fairly modest 20-floor building.

With a net worth estimated at US$10 billion, Mr Griffin, founder and chief executive of investment firm Citadel, is among the richest people in the world. And in recent years, he has become increasingly willing to flaunt his wealth, spending lavishly on modern art, philanthropy and trophy real estate, even as income inequality is roiling the national political debate.

Twice divorced, Mr Griffin has three children and is primarily based in Chicago, where Citadel is headquartered. Through a spokesman, Mr Griffin declined to comment for this story.

He is a globe-trotting home buyer, leaving a trail of his pricey purchases, from a US$60 million penthouse in Miami to a US$122 million mansion in London.

All told, according to a person familiar with Mr Griffin's spending, he has spent approximately US$700 million on real estate and nearly as much on art.

But he has given away about US$700 million, according to the person familiar with his finances.

He is on the board of the Whitney Museum of American Art. He donated US$40 million to the Museum of Modern Art. Mr Griffin and his former wife donated US$19 million to the Art Institute of Chicago. And at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, he donated US$16.5 million to fund the purchase of the largest dinosaur ever discovered.

Mr Griffin has also donated huge sums to educational institutions.

In 2014 he gave US$150 million to Harvard University, the largest gift in the school's history. In 2017 his charity said it would donate US$125 million to the University of Chicago.

Fellow financiers said Mr Griffin should be applauded for his philanthropy, rather than vilified for his spending.

Mr John Rogers Jr, chief executive of Ariel Investments, who serves on the University of Chicago board with Mr Griffin, said: "The key thing is that he's decided to be generous now. Ken is a role model for the next generation of hedge fund managers."

Mr Griffin has cited his maternal grandparents as inspiration for his philanthropy. They ran a fuel oil business in Illinois, and when some customers could not pay their bills during the winter, his grandparents would extend them credit.

The Harvard graduate made his fortune through finance. As a sophomore in 1987, Mr Griffin began trading out of his dorm room using a fax machine, a personal computer and the phone. Just three years later, he founded Citadel. The firm grew rapidly, and today Citadel, which is privately held, manages some US$28 billion, trading stocks, fixed income, commodities and more.

Mr Griffin has proved adept at making a profit even during market turbulence. Last year, Citadel's flagship fund was up 9.1 per cent, despite a difficult end of the year for most markets. In the hedge fund industry, such performance is extremely lucrative. In 2017 alone, Mr Griffin earned some US$1.4 billion, more than any other hedge fund manager, according to Institutional Investor's Alpha magazine.

Wall Street's compensations have made New York look like a Monopoly board come to life; there are so many ultra-luxury residential buildings along the southern edge of Central Park that it has been nicknamed "Billionaire's Row".

That Mr Griffin is spending so freely when populist movements are gaining momentum around the globe struck some critics as especially tone deaf.

"The plutocrats continue brazenly flaunting the excesses that have enraged much of humanity," said Mr Anand Giridharadas, author of Winners Take All, and a critic of wealthy philanthropists. "They are displaying very little awareness of the moment that we are in."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 28, 2019, with the headline 'Even in jaded New York, a $323m penthouse turns heads'. Subscribe