The Pull of Provenance: Do Celebrity Connections Actually Sell Homes?

The Pull of Provenance: Do Celebrity Connections Actually Sell Homes?

  • Sotheby's International Realty
  • 01/16/24

Good PR is essential for marketing a luxury property, and when it comes to commanding attention for a home for sale, there’s nothing quite like a celebrity connection. 

Back in 2018, for instance, a Turks and Caicos estate garnered plenty of press when it went up for auction. But more than its 10,000-square-foot size, private beach access, or tennis courts, it was the six-bedroom’s provenance as the former island retreat of the musician Prince—complete with a telltale purple driveway—that drew the most notice. 

Stars exert a powerful pull, and when a property has been owned by someone famous, it usually adds up to more eyes on that listing, agents say. 

“There’s no question that provenance or pedigree helps in the world of luxury products,” says Eric Lavey, senior global real estate advisor, Sotheby’s International Realty–Beverly Hills Brokerage. “It’s human nature. A person who is regarded as having high taste chose this as their home, so the assumption is this must be a wonderful property.” 

The impact of celebrity provenance “is very difficult to appraise precisely,” says Frederic Barth, managing director, Côte d’Azur Sotheby’s International Realty. But, he says, “it eases the process and makes it easier to find the right buyer.”

And finding the right buyer is key for the properties in question, often large and singular estates that would be out of reach financially for most. When Bruce Willis decided to sell his resort home on Parrot Cay, a private island, for instance, the fact that the actor had built the retreat and owned it for over a decade was instrumental in connecting with the new owners. 


The Bruce Willis connection helped with respect to time on the market — There were articles about it in The Wall Street Journal and Mansion Global, and that PR push helped with getting eyes on the listing. That’s how the buyer became familiar with the offering.”

Nina Siegenthaler

Vice President, Turks & Caicos Sotheby’s International Realty.


“The Bruce Willis connection helped with respect to time on the market,” says Nina Siegenthaler, vice president, Turks & Caicos Sotheby’s International Realty. “There were articles about it in The Wall Street Journal and Mansion Global, and that PR push helped with getting eyes on the listing. That’s how the buyer became familiar with the offering.” 

The compound sold for US$27 million, which Siegenthaler says is the value they had anticipated. 

The new owners weren’t hindered by the celebrity connection when it came to making significant renovations, but the home’s provenance had been a major draw for them to sign on the dotted line. 

Even a minor brush with fame can be helpful in moving a property off the market quickly. If a home doesn’t necessarily have any famous former owners, a celebrity endorsement can make a difference. “Did someone famous rent the property and were photographed there? That’s positive,” Lavey says.

One home he sold, in the Hollywood Hills, had been previously owned by producer Hal B. Wallis, and later, actress Doris Roberts, most recognized from Everybody Loves Raymond. But what really got buyers interested was a tenant who had once stayed in the property’s guest cottage: James Dean. 

Even though Dean lived there briefly in the 1950s—and the guest cottage was no longer detached but part of the house—people were fascinated by this piece of its history. 

“The house was completely gutted, and when it was done the neighbors all came to see the property,” Lavey says. “Many people had heard the James Dean story. We never leaned on it, but the home sold quickly.” 

Agents say they find that when a property is linked with a person of great renown, media attention quickly follows. 

When the Merrywood Estate—Jackie Kennedy’s childhood home in Virginia—came onto the market, a number of major outlets ran the story of the sprawling, Georgian mansion. 

“The press picked it up and then it took on a life of its own,” says Mark Lowham, CEO, TTR Sotheby’s International Realty. “It definitely captured the imagination and attention of a number of buyers, including the one who ended up purchasing it.”

So much of marketing comes down to effective storytelling, and a home with the provenance of a high-profile former owner, storied history, or notable architecture—or all three ideally—make it much easier for agents to tell that story, with the press helping to boost awareness. 

This can translate to a higher sales price. “In terms of the eventual transaction, the more interest you generate, the better the outcome will be,” Lowham explains. 

Because of their price point, though, many high-end homes have very small potential buyer pools. In such cases, provenance is instrumental in connecting with just the right person for the property. When another home with a Kennedy connection—a Côte d’Azur villa that was once a vacation destination for John F. Kennedy—came onto the market, its bona fides certainly helped with visibility. 

But it didn’t necessarily generate tons of competition among buyers. “We’re talking about fairly big numbers—the property was listed for US$31.5 million,” Barth says. “I’d love to have a waiting list for a home like that, but it’s not the reality of the market. But there’s no doubt its provenance helped in terms of visibility and marketing, which leads to a situation where it’s easier to sell.” 

Does Discretion Help?

Being thoughtful and strategic about how a home’s provenance is advertised is key to the high visibility that can lead to a successful sale. Often, agents find it’s more effective to be discreet about a celebrity connection, rather than tout it upfront. 

For the Kennedy villa, for instance, Barth notes that there was nothing on the listing page that referenced JFK’s time at the property. 

"When we were contacted through digital marketing, we would send an expanded brochure, which included some photographs of JFK’s family, and JFK playing in the garden when he was a child,” he says.

“These were meant to be informative, and help emphasize the history of the property.” 

And in some cases, a famous homeowner does not want to be mentioned at all in promotional materials. But even then, provenance can play a role. 

“We had a property where the owner preferred to keep the sale private,” Siegenthaler says. “We didn’t have that promotional aspect to help us. But the owner, a fashion designer, had lent a sense of style and quality to the property, so provenance in that case did help dictate the valuation.” 

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