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We think of pawn shops as the last stop for people who are desperate for cash. Hawk your wedding ring or your guitar for a quick and easy loan. Now there's a new breed of pawn shops out there that cater to the rich.
Ashley Milne-Tyte from our Planet Money team reports.
ASHLEY MILNE-TYTE, BYLINE: Regi Huc is a model, an actor who lives in New York. He's been in cop shows.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW)
REGI HUC: (as Cop) Freeze. Let me see your hands right now.
MILNE-TYTE: He's been in soap operas playing a cop.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW)
HUC: (as Cop) So be a buzz-kill but you're under arrest.
MILNE-TYTE: On paper his finances look good. He owns some buildings in Philadelphia. He has a stake in a family business. He has plenty of assets. But that wealth didn't help him when he was finishing up production on his first movie.
HUC: I needed to raise around $75,000 very quickly. And I didn't the cash to throw into it.
MILNE-TYTE: It's a romantic comedy set in Brooklyn. He needed to do re-shoots, pay for some music, all before the deadline to enter this year's film festivals. So he looks around. He does not have the money in his bank account. He does not want to sell his real estate. He doesn't have time to apply for a loan.
HUC: I needed the money, like, literally within, like, a week.
MILNE-TYTE: A friend told him about a guy.
BABA BLUMKIN, NEW YORK LOAN COMPANY: My name is Baba Blumkin. I work for New York Loan Company.
MILNE-TYTE: The sign outside says: Pawnshop To The Stars. It is not dark. It is not seedy. It's an office building in New York's diamond district with plush carpeting and a display case filled with jewels. This is where Regi Huc showed up carrying two of his most portable prized possessions: watches, a Patek Philippe and a Rolex. Together, they're worth about $200,000.
HUC: I brought those in - I'm like sweating now talking about it. I brought them in and, you know, they assessed them and...
MILNE-TYTE: And they offered $75,000 - with a catch, of course. This is a high interest loan, 48 percent a year. That works out to almost $3,000 a month in interest. Regi took the deal.
HUC: I needed to finish this film.
MILNE-TYTE: A few months later, he paid off the loan and got his watches back.
Baba Blumkin says this is a pretty typical transaction for a high-end pawnshop. He used to work in their sister store, Beverly Loan in Beverly Hills. He says wealthy people, stars, they're just like us. Even with all the real estate and stocks and bonds and jewelry, sometimes there's no liquid cash at the end of the month. He's given loans on diamond necklaces, rare paintings - Chagalls, Monets - gold statuettes.
COMPANY: Probably the most interesting piece of entertainment memorabilia I've ever done was an Academy Award to one of the most iconic movies of all time.
MILNE-TYTE: Which film?
COMPANY: A good one.
MILNE-TYTE: He is discrete.
As for what drives the rich to desperate measures, I spoke to one guy who had his kids' tuition bills arrive at once - Harvard and Columbia. He pawned a Picasso sketch. But these days, the high-end pawnshops are seeing a lot of businesspeople. It's been harder for small businesses to get loans. But in a pawn shop, there's no credit check, so you're not leaving a paper trail - no one else has to know you're in a bind.
Deborah Johnson ran a consulting business in New York until recently. Last year, some of her clients stopped paying her.
DEBORAH JOHNSON: I was running out of money and I was just like, OK, Deborah, now is the time for action. And I needed extra cash to just make sure that I could keep a roof over my head and maintain my credit.
MILNE-TYTE: She didn't even have to know a guy. She saw an ad on TV for another high-end pawnshop.
(SOUNDBITE OF AN AD)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Introducing Borro, the new way to secure a loan. Borrow money using assets you already own, like luxury watches, jewelry, art, cars, antiques...
MILNE-TYTE: She had two watches. She brought them to Borro's offices in Manhattan. Her loan offer was about six and a half thousand dollars. Johnson says everyone was nice, very professional. But no matter how high-end the experience, it was hard knowing it had come to this.
JOHNSON: I don't know that I am capable of putting words to the fear and the terror, because it just feels like everything is coming crashing down.
MILNE-TYTE: She doesn't know if she'll be able to pay back the loan and ever see her watches again. And this is where high-end pawnshop is the exact same as a pawnshop on the corner: if you don't pay back the loan, your item will be sold.
(SOUNDBITE OF LOCKS AND KEYS)
MILNE-TYTE: At New York Loan, Baba Blumkin shows me a beautiful diamond necklace from the early '60s, the kind Elizabeth Taylor might have coveted.
COMPANY: Would retail for over 100,000 and we would sell it for 65,000.
MILNE-TYTE: Perfect for walking the red carpet. And should the buyer fall on hard times, they could always bring it back for cash.
Ashley Milne-Tyte, NPR News.
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