Rare cigars and at-home spas: Meet the man who can get billionaires whatever they want

 (UK Sotheby's International Realty)
(UK Sotheby's International Realty)

As London ground to a halt in April 2020, Marcus O’Brien was finalising the sale of 2-8a Rutland Gate: a palatial property made up of four townhouses knocked together, overlooking Hyde Park. It went for £210 million: the most expensive house ever sold in Britain. The buyer was Cheung Chung-kiu, a Hong Kong billionaire. He never moved in, and O’Brien moved on: hopping from his role as head of the Private Office at Beauchamp Estates, to UK Sotheby’s International Realty.

Part of a new cohort of movers and shakers including George Vernon, protégé of Oliver Bernard; Alice Freeman, a partner in the super prime lettings team at Knight Frank; and Daniel Daggers, star of the new Netflix show Buying London, O’Brien has been appointed head of the Family Office at the UK luxury agency: a new centre-point for the super-rich looking for advice on how to spend it. This marks the first of what is sure to be a slew of London outposts for a new, younger generation of gazillionaires coveting a world of monogrammed towels, at-home health spas, Saatchi-approved art and top-notch houses. ‘Seventy per cent of my sales are off market,’ O’Brien says. Of his clients’ financial status, he estimates ‘35 per cent’ are non doms.

The main reception room at 149 Old Park Lane, on sale via UK Sotheby’s for £26.25 million (UK Sotheby's International Realty)
The main reception room at 149 Old Park Lane, on sale via UK Sotheby’s for £26.25 million (UK Sotheby's International Realty)

O’Brien is the son of Jon O’Brien, founder of the boutique property developer DOMVS, so knows a thing or two about the dynastic complexities playing out between generations in the families he calls clients. To add to this, he is the ex-protégé of Beauchamp boss Gary Hersham, whose agency has been behind some of London’s most eye-watering transactions: Caroline Terrace (£60m) and Grosvenor Crescent (£100m).

But Sotheby’s, with O’Brien at the helm, have time on their side. He is, against the 71-year-old Hersham, cherubic: aged 32 and enjoying an influx of young buyers clamouring for someone more aligned with their tastes. ‘Over the last 10 years, the average age of a buyer with $25 million or more to spend, globally, came down 12 years,’ he says. Competition is heating up for the first gen of luxury agents – Andrew Langton, Peter Wetherell – and for the classic stomping grounds of Mayfair and Belgravia. Today’s purveyors are entrepreneurs from the US and China, along with the scions of Russian and Middle Eastern fortunes: profiles in search of greener pastures, namely Notting Hill, where already stratospheric prices were forced further upwards during the pandemic as London’s most desirable homes became those with “direct access” to “the best garden squares”. There has been a price flip, with houses on premium roads in W11 commanding £4,500 per square foot against £3,000 per square foot in Eaton Square.

Amid these individual market shifts, London remains the global capital of luxury realty. The job of estate agent has been traditionally sneered at in the UK, O’Brien says: but thanks to hit shows such as Selling Sunset, we now take after the US, where the profession carries more cachet. A US realtor needs their certificate renewed every four years, keeping them at the top of their game; and the success stories speak for themselves (the Oppenheim brothers, Kurt Rappaport). London’s top agents aren’t just rubbing shoulders with the super-rich but becoming so themselves.

You have to ingrain yourself within their lives to understand what makes them tick

Marcus O'Brien

It is a gilded world. O’Brien is not worried about the change in non dom status due in 2025: his market is as bulletproof as the wine cellars in his clients’ basements. ‘There will always be a queue of people waiting to buy a house on Kensington Palace Gardens,’ he says. His entire universe orbits around his clients: ‘They will come to my wedding, to parties... We’ll take the private plane to Miami with them.’ His team advise on all sorts of matters from which art to buy to the right schools. ‘You have to ingrain yourself within their lives to understand what makes them tick,’ he says: and what they are most likely to spend their money on next.

O’Brien has invited me for lunch at 5 Hertford Street, a private club that a friend once called a gallery of Toads of Toad Hall. A bit harsh, I thought, upon examination: the interiors are rather more Houghton Hall and the clientele more foreign dignitary than British upper crust. It’s the kind of place that will hand you a club blazer if, like me, you failed to check the dress code. O’Brien, who arrives after, must have clocked it but makes no remark. Diplomacy and discretion are the heart of his trade.

And yet, the lifestyle is loud. O’Brien’s world is one of Michelin-star lunches, vintage car races, and private jets – part of a quest to woo new clients and consolidate others’ loyalty. He travels wherever they go: last week, he spent Monday and Tuesday in the Bahamas; Wednesday and Thursday in London; Friday and Saturday in Antigua. The day after we meet, he’s off to Milan; then Monaco for RM Sotheby’s car auction and two house openings in Antibes. He recounts a recent trip with a US client which gets more baroque with each clause: informed while at dinner with clients one night that he was expected at the Battersea helipad at 8am the next day, supposedly to accompany him to the Cotswolds to view a house, only to end up in a vintage car garage in the Home Counties to check out (and buy) a couple of Ferraris (250 GTOs, to be precise). It’s not a carbon neutral job ­– despite sustainability being, O’Brien says, a growing concern among younger buyers. The DOMVS development on Avenue Road, I am told, is making use of thermal boreholes as an energy source.

The super-rich are also super-fickle. ‘They can wake up one day with an absolute infatuation to start a new scratch cigar collection,’ O’Brien says. ‘And they’ll say: ‘Marcus, where can I buy Behike 56s?’ [one of the world’s rarest, of which only a thousand were made]’. They are also super-demanding and unforgiving of mistakes. It’s that mindset that has made them ‘so successful’, he says. I ask if he ever tires of the grind (‘I’m never not flying’), or being treated like a lackey or glorified PA. ‘No’.

O’Brien is out with clients five nights a week and credits his wife with co-entertaining. She works for Katharine Pooley, British Interior Designer of the Decade: O’Brien’s clients have repeatedly hired to remodel their homes (‘there’s a lot of synergy between us’). They live together on Chesham Street, an ambassadorial road in SW1 just 15 minutes from Sotheby’s, where one of O’Brien’s clients recently bought Renoir’s Flowers in a Vase (estimate: £2m to £3m). That, along with the original vase itself.

The matter of what the rich do with their money – whether they splurge on art, cars or property regardless of their attachment or erudition in such departments – is not one on which Marcus dwells intellectually. He dismisses my concerns about gentrification when commenting on empty homes in the capital. Non-resident buyers typically own several, he says, and under the current rules this means they pay a whopping 17 per cent in tax duty. To him, that plus the staff they employ equals social contribution. Yet such buyers are often masters of tax avoidance, skirting the very rules that are meant to ensure they give back. Are there points at which O’Brien has found this whole circus a tad nauseating?

Clearly not. ‘You won’t guess how many homes one of my clients has,’ he beams (I prod: it’s 23), adding proudly: ‘I’ve transacted with many of the top 10s’. Including, indirectly, the second richest person in Asia, the Chinese property billionaire Hui Ka Yan for whom the 2-8a Rutland Gate purchaser, Cheung Chung-kiu, was effectively posing. O’Brien insists that ‘if you keep your morals right, and you do what you believe to be the right thing – morally – it’ll pay dividends.’ He really is an excellent salesman. As long as the house gets sold for the right price and the client is happy, that is all that matters. Meanwhile, I forget to ask about the ethics of the baby monkfish I saw on the menu.