Traditionally, pawn shops have been the last stop for people desperate for cash. But now there's a small but growing group of pawn shops for the wealthy.
Actor and model Regi Huc needed $75,000 in a hurry last year. He was making his first feature film, and needed to do re-shoots before the deadline to enter this year's film festivals.
On paper his finances look good. He owns some buildings in Philadelphia and has a stake in a family business, but he needed that money within a week. He didn't have the cash in his bank account. He didn't have time to apply for a loan.
A friend told Huc about a guy: Baba Blumkin, general manager of high-end pawn shop, New York Loan. Huc decided to pawn two of his most prized possessions: watches — a Patek Philippe and a Rolex. Together they're worth $200,000.
Blumkin assessed each piece, and offered him a loan of $75,000. Huc took the deal. His watches went into a vault.
Huc had to pay almost $3,000 a month in interest on that loan. That's an interest rate of 48 percent a year.
He got his watches back after four months.
Blumkin used to work at his company's sister store, Beverly Loan in Beverly Hills, an elegant establishment that's been discreetly serving Hollywood since the late 1930s. He says even with all their assets, sometimes the rich don't have enough cash to meet expenses at the end of the month. He's given loans on everything from Chagall and Monet paintings to Grammys and Oscars.
He says these days many customers are businesspeople who need a quick cash infusion to meet payroll. They pay him back once their receivables come in. It's still hard for many small businesses to get loans. And at a pawn shop, there's no credit check. Blumkin say for his clients, the convenience of instant cash outweighs the temporary pain of a high interest rate.
Deborah Johnson ran a consulting business until recently. Then her clients started going bust, and she stopped getting paid. One day she saw a TV commercial for a company called Borro. Like Huc, she had two watches, though they were worth much less than his. Borro assessed them and loaned her $6,500 dollars.
She's glad she had this option. Even so, it was tough knowing things had come to this.
"I don't know that I am capable of putting words to the fear and the terror," she says. "It just feels like everything is coming crashing down."
New York Loan and Borro say about 90 percent of their clients pay off their loans and get their items back. Johnson isn't sure if she'll be one of them.
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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.
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MILNE-TYTE: He's been in soap operas playing a cop.
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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.
: 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.
: 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.
: 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.
: 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.
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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.
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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. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.