It's hard to imagine selling a Fifth Avenue mansion for a pearl necklace - but that's exactly the deal that was made between an indulgent millionaire and a savvy jeweler in early 20th c. New York City, and with both parties thoroughly satisfied with the transaction, too.
Morton F. Plant (1852-1918) was the millionaire, a railroad tycoon, real estate developer, and philanthropist. Plant was a gentleman with expensive tastes – he owned yachts, baseball teams, multiple houses, and a hotel or two – and when he decided on a new house in 1902, he spent grandly. Occupying a corner lot on Fifth Avenue and 52nd Street, the five-story mansion, left, was built of granite and marble and featured all the elegant details of the Italian Renaissance Revival style, making it an instant landmark of "Millionaire's Row."
When Plant's wife of twenty-six years died in 1913, the sixty-one-year-old millionaire didn't wait long to find a new spouse. Mae Caldwell Manwaring was only thirty-one, and married to another man. But Plant was not accustomed to being denied, and less than a year after his wife's death, he married the newly-divorced Maisie.
A new bride deserved a new house. Concerned with the encroachment of stores and businesses up Fifth Avenue, Plant began building an even more lavish new mansion farther uptown on 86th Street. Maisie was eager to do a little upgrading of her own. She had her eye on a double-strand necklace of Oriental pearls in the display cases at Cartier. In these days before cultured pearls, natural pearls were extremely valuable, and favored by kings and queens – and Maisie. This particular necklace certainly had a royal price: $1million dollars, or roughly $16 million in today's money.
But what Maisie wanted, Maisie received. Her husband met with the jeweler, and sold the Italianate mansion on 52nd Street for $100 and the pearl necklace. The jeweler transformed the mansion into Cartier U.S. flagship store. Maisie, right, happily wore her pearls through two more marriages.
In the long run, however, it seems that Cartier got the better of the deal. The store continues to prosper in Plant's mansion, and in 1970 was designated a New York City Landmark. I can't begin to imagine what the Cartier store is worth today in Manhattan's real estate market, except that it must be significantly more than a million dollars. As for Maisie's pearls, the development of cultured pearls in the 1930s-40s flattened the market for natural pearls. After her death in 1957, Maisie's heirs sold her pearls at Park Bernet. The price realized at auction? A mere $150,000.
Many thanks to one of our favorite blogs, Daytonian in Manhattan, for first sharing the story of Maisie's pearls with us.