The Closing: Nikki Field

Sotheby's broker on foreign money, brand-building and her "Catch Me if You Can" days

Nikki Field (Photos by Axel Dupeux)
Nikki Field (Photos by Axel Dupeux)

The Russian had come ready to buy. 

“Just get him in there; he’ll probably spend $50 million,” his wealth manager assured Nikki Field. The Sotheby’s dealmaker was hawking full-floor units at Gary Barnett’s One57, the project that birthed Billionaires’ Row and seemed tailor-made for the splashy foreign buyers who were rolling into town, ravenous for Manhattan real estate with no velvet rope besides money. 

On the appointed day, Field and the client arrived at the tower. “We took him in, locked him in on a $39 million property. We were there five minutes. Perfect.”

The client asked Field to go to lunch. Easiest fat commission of her career. But “on the way down, hubris.”

With her signature cocktail of conviction, Pan Am charm and bravado, Field said to him, “I know how you operate. I know how you travel. You’re going to need an apartment for staff. There’s a two-bedroom that wasn’t on the market that just came back on. You might want to stop by and pick it up.” 

“This is on the elevator ride down,” Field recalled. “We stopped on the 30th floor, went to the two-bedroom. He said, ‘That sounds good, too.’ We went to lunch. The next day, he called me and said, ‘Love that building. Thanks so much! I just wanted to be in there — the two-bedroom is enough. Forget the other one.’”

For want of a $7 million deal, a $39 million one was lost. Moral of the story? “Stop selling once you’ve made the deal,” Field said.

More often than not, Field has nailed the intricacies of catering to the global uber-wealthy: when to court, when to push, when to stay silent. She heads Sotheby’s perennially top team — 15 agents active across the tri-state area with feeder networks around the globe and dedicated desks in Asia, India, Canada and the Middle East — and rode the wave of Chinese money crashing over New York in the mid-2010s. (A savvy marketer, Field co-authored a guide to the American real estate market for Chinese investors, and for any announcements related to that cohort, was always dressed in auspicious red.)

In 2019, Field brokered Jeff Bezos’ $80 million purchase of a three-unit spread at 212 Fifth Avenue; she then helped the tech titan expand his dominion at the project with another $40 million in deals over the next two years. 

About two-thirds of her business still comes from outside the U.S., a lucrative niche but one with a host of geopolitical wildcards: capital controls, uprisings, war. Field has to stay on top of it all and follow the money. 

“India’s really working for us right now,” she said. “They love all things American.”

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Born: October 4
Hometown: Ashtabula, Ohio
Lives: Midtown East
Family: Married, two children, five grandchildren

You were a Pan Am flight attendant when it was one of the most glamorous jobs in the world.

These women were spectacular. Most were Scandinavian — Pan Am liked multiple languages. I applied but did not make the cut. So I went down to Miami, to TWA, and got in immediately. But from a very early age, I was brand-focused. 

I’m truly a bitch. I try to cover it with a Chanel jacket and soft hairdo.

I went back to Pan Am a month later with false eyelashes and a fall [a hair extension], all glammed up, after having worked really hard on my Spanish. I made a huge effort with the interviewer. Got in. 

The 747 had just been introduced. They sent me to New York immediately. My very first flight was Pan Am Flight 1, 22 days around the world. 

In the ’70s, travel was for the elites. This is when women still went to the airport with gloves. I focused on working first class, and in those days, we talked a lot with passengers — we’d share brandy with them. It was my first experience working in the luxury sector. 

How’d you meet your husband?

There were five of us [Pan Am stewardesses] in a one-bedroom apartment at 429 East 52nd Street. The concierge downstairs tells me one day, “Nikki, there’s a single guy moving in on your floor. He’s in the corner in the two-bedroom. You have to meet him.” 

I went back to my roommates, and said, “Single guy, two-bedroom. We’re going to get some of his closets.” So I hung out for the whole day that he moved in. We became fast friends. He was dating someone else, I was dating someone else. We would meet each other after our dates, share funny stories.

When did the transition to lovers happen?

When we both got rid of our exes. I was pretty shallow. He had a Cadillac and a Corvette in the garage. There was this element of, he’s going someplace. He also had a home out in Amagansett, and he invited all of my friends out in the summer. That’s where we became closer. Once we got together, we never spent a day apart.

After you had children, you were a stay-at-home mom for a while. The Manhattan version of Donna Reed, as you put it.

Exactly right. We take the role of the position we’re in, and it’s all-encompassing when you’re a parent. I had to be the best damn parents’ association president, we had to bring in the highest returns on our fundraising drive. I really got to enjoy my daughters for a while. Until I became a very boring partner. 

I could talk about the PTA and the after-school events. Meanwhile, my husband was talking about extraordinarily impressive deals and the thrill of closing the deal and the thrill of bringing it in for the whole team. He was the one that said, “I think you may want to go back to work.”

When you became a real estate agent, you carved out a niche selling medical offices. You then parlayed that into becoming a penthouse specialist.

There were so few penthouses, so why would somebody specialize in them? Because it was sexy for the press. 

Me and Gillian [Field’s late business partner Gillian Jolis] both knew that marketing was the key. We both wanted the Sotheby’s brand. She got the invitation. She said, “No, let’s stick with this. We know what we’re doing. They’ll come for both of us.”

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One year later, [former Sotheby’s executive] Kathy Korte called. [At the time,] they did not take partners. They did not take teams. We definitely were the very first team to be permitted to self-market. 

Market yourselves on the listings?

No, in the advertising, in the PR. Putting our pictures out, about us. About our accomplishments and not the properties. There was a great fear in the ‘90s that the teams would have too much leverage. We proved them wrong. We understood the value of co-branding with our brand, and we had to fight tooth and nail every time. It’s not always going to be properties, it’s going to be our success. Because that’s what got us business. That’s what got the phone calls. 

You like the limelight.

Ninety-nine point nine percent of my success is not my talent. It is the marketing that I’ve done.

In the late 2000s, you made a transformative bet on your business by going all in on China.

It was September 2008. I had seven mouths to feed on my team, and there was no New York business. I had the opportunity through Sotheby’s to know a lot of people in China, franchise owners, and I wanted to see if they were interested in taking advantage of an opportunist market in New York. I just focused on following the money. We were able, through some very good financial investments on my part, to identify the right people to bring on board and to make introductions to wealth advisers to bring in that stream of money. Then I had people like Gary Barnett that had product for me to sell.

That’s the other essential component — people like Barnett who were building the kinds of glitzy pads that fit foreigners’ ideas of New York. The Dakota or the Beresford were not going to work — first of all, they wouldn’t be let in.

It had to be new development. We all knew that the timing was perfect. The money was coming offshore. And we had this flood of wealth advisers contacting us. 

We were letting people know where the opportunity was and where the uber-product was. That’s what they were mostly interested in, because they didn’t put a lot of time and research in. Few of them even sent advance people over to check in. We had to prove that it was a slam-dunk investment in a slam-dunk location. And we were able to do that very easily.

For the foreign buyers, it was initially a returns game. But after a while, it was about parking cash.

Thankfully, there was a lot of money that was brought into New York for that. We were working a lot with the Russians — that was definitely parking — and some mainland Chinese, too. The Sotheby’s auction house in Hong Kong had literally every billionaire’s name in their file, because they all bought art, jewelry, cars. In sharing that client base, we were able to get their attention.

How’s your Mandarin? You were taking lessons.

Oh, I crashed and burned on that.

When you become known as a conduit for foreign money, you also have to grapple with the backlash. I’m thinking of the real estate money-laundering investigations, such as the one focused on the Time Warner Center.

I was never affiliated with any of those purchases, by luck.

[But don’t forget] developers still wanted the money. They had to go through different paths, but they still wanted the money. There was, as we well know, a lot of money that needed to be washed, but there was much more money that didn’t need to be washed. Indian [money], Asian, South American, Canadian that had been well earned. And people were only then beginning to understand the securitization of residential portfolio-building.

There was a lot of money that needed to be washed, but there was much more money that didn’t need to be washed.

How do you maintain the energy and the intensity after all these years, across all those time zones?

Terror of aging out. I want to be relevant in the discussion. More than half of my team are much younger. We’re constantly recruiting new people because they bring this new energy, this new perspective.

We do have a succession plan here. When I turn 100, I’ll only be working part-time.

The past few years have seen the emergence of a global ultra-luxury market that, to me, is untethered from local comps. Captains of the universe who want what they want, price be damned. What do they look for?

One of the things that my clients are always concerned about, particularly the billionaires, is safety and security for their family. There is this side of them that says, “I’m so wealthy, I can buy the best and the biggest and the most expensive.” But there’s a clear concern now about exposing their family to that level of exhibitionism. I hear this over and over and again: “We have to keep this quiet. I do not want my family exposed.” There’s a lot more massive money out there now that is invisible.

What’s something that you overpaid for and felt good about?

My first Birkin bag. I used to carry fake Birkins when I first started. After my first million-dollar sale, at the Majestic at 115 Central Park West, I went out and I walked right over to Hermès and I bought it. I felt incredibly guilty because I had to go home and tell my husband. But he rejoiced. 

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

Marry him.

How has being a grandmother changed you?

There’s a softer side of me now. I’m truly a bitch, most people know that. I try to cover it with a Chanel jacket and soft hairdo. I am strong, and when I’m right, I’m right. But I’m also smart enough since becoming a grandmother and working with and for my daughter to learn that there’s still a lot that I have to learn. 

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