In a collector’s world, there is one quality that is held in the highest regard: rarity, with certainty that you have found the real thing. Michael Bruno, founder and chairman of 1stdibs, specializes in recognizing the uncommon. You might even say collecting runs in his veins. He bought his first house at age 19 and what followed over the next three decades was an education in the world of architecture and design. Bruno has saved nine homes in four cities, and along the way founded the world’s largest online marketplace for rare and desirable objects.
Like many of the collectors and design aficionados who frequent 1stdibs.com, Bruno has an affinity for preserving the past—i.e. historic properties that tell stories through weathered clapboards and ornate moldings in an irreplaceable if-these-walls-could-talk kind of way. His personal real estate portfolio is worthy of any collector’s envy: a 1920s Mediterranean designed by William Templeton Johnson in La Jolla, Calif., a 1913 Willis Polk-designed Gothic revival in San Francisco, a 7-acre estate in Sagaponack, N.Y. with three houses and five barns dating back to 1740, two Southampton beach houses and three Tuxedo Park, N.Y. properties—one of which is currently renovating and designing with the help of his friend, interior designer Windsor Smith.
Bruno, a former real estate agent, explains: “I love finding great old properties that are worthy of being respected, especially the ones you can buy for a fraction of their replacement cost. My home in Tuxedo Park was assessed for replacement value by the insurance company at over $10 million and I paid $3 million. There is nothing more exciting than having the pleasure to respect a great old home and prepare it to survive for hundreds of years.”
Inspired by his love affair with real estate and collecting, Previews® Inside Out asked Bruno to share his greatest memories, advice and secrets for uncovering the true hidden gems in the marketplace.
Previews Inside Out Looking back on your acquisitions as a whole (from real estate to art and antiques), what is the one, unifying quality?
Michael Bruno Passion.
Previews Inside Out What is your philosophy on acquiring real estate?
Michael Bruno Buy low, sell high. But always be in love.
Previews Inside Out What’s the secret to a great real estate find?
Michael Bruno You will know it when you see it.
Previews Inside Out Over the last 30 years, which home has been your favorite?
Michael Bruno They are like children. I love them all.
Previews Inside Out In all those years of buying and selling real estate, what was your greatest faux pas? What did it teach you?
Michael Bruno Not getting everything in writing. When it comes to real estate, make sure it’s all on paper.
Previews Inside Out Everyone has a story about “the one that got away.” Which one was it for you?
Michael Bruno I always find the properties that need me most at the moment. So I can’t say there is one that got away.
Previews Inside Out How do you know when a purchase is “the one”?
Michael Bruno For me, it is instinctual.
Previews Inside Out You have said that your love of real estate and design is about “stewardship.” Do you wish more affluent buyers felt this way about historic homes? And do they always need to be redone historically?
Michael Bruno Right now, I am renovating a special home designed in 1900 by John Russell Pope. It is in the book on his work listed as the first home he designed after graduating from the École des Beaux-arts. Pope designed many important national monuments, museums and residences. My favorite was the home of Marshall Field on Long Island, which is now a state park. My Pope home sits on 20 acres in Tuxedo Park with over 1,000 feet of lake frontage. It feels like an Alpine retreat and I consider it my city home. I can get to the George Washington bridge in 30 minutes. The house is fairly large, so I decided to simplify the structure and paint all of the walls white and the floors dark. The simplicity of the design makes the house feel very young and modern. If you respect the architecture, I feel you are pretty much free to do as you like.
To find a treasure to add to your real estate collection, log onto realestate.1stdibs.com.