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Christmas catalogs: the $65,000 wooden steer

By
IRIS KRASNOW

WASHINGTON -- Finding a luxury gift for the one who has it all is easy street come Christmas -- if you're on the right mailing lists. Consumers with big bucks and tough-to-please subjects can find original pickings in upscale catalogs.

Take Neiman-Marcus' $65,000 desk of exotic woods (please) that is a ringer, freckle to freckle, for a Longhorn steer. Or, Sakowitz' offer to have a life-size replica of Rome's Trevi Fountain erected in the privacy of your backyard for a cool $2.25 million.

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Too steep? Indulge instead in Gump's twisted-strand choker of Lake Biwa freshwater pears at $4,500 or a $5,000 sun bed from the Yuppie bible, Sharper Image.

How can consumers plunk down thousands of dollars based on mere pictures in catalogs?

'Because of their confidence in the company,' says Robert Sakowitz, chairman-of-the-board of the Sakowitz specialty stores. 'Because of their desire to find something unique; because of their feeling of time pressures; because they don't want to fight the mediocrity you see in thousands of stores.'

The Houston-based Sakowitz company pulls out both guns to fight mediocrity this season with 'Ultimate Gifts' revolving around the theme of 'romance in your life'.

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So far there have been no requests for the Trevi Fountain, but there's no rush. Even if a buyer does come forward, he or she won't get the monument by Christmas 1984 -- it takes three years for delivery and installation.

Nor is anyone standing in line yet for their ten-week $5.3 million 'Slow Boat' cruise from Athens to China aboard a yacht staffed by 80 that sleeps 100 of your dearest pals.

But rest assured there are still some hopeless romantics out there seeking The Ultimate. Two gents have signed up for Sakowitz's $1,995 gift of long-stemmed red roses delivered to an amour once a week for a year.

'Everbody thinks that Texans buy the Ultimate Gifts,' Sakowitz says with a laugh. 'But over their 16-year history, more than 90 percent have been purchased by non-Texans.'

No gift tagged upwards of $1 million has ever sold, he says. One year Sakowitz listed a bathtub full of diamonds in excess of $100 million.

Lesser extravaganzas have been snatched up -- an evening of conducting the Houston Symphony Orchestra for $14,500; a Texas-shaped swimming pool brimming with Perrier water at $250,000; a $500 chance to sit in on a Playboy Magazine photography session with the bunny of the month.

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'A lady bought it for her husband and we heard later the mabriage dissolved,' chuckles Carol Woldrup, a Sakowitz vice-president. 'He had such a good time that it wound up in divorce court.'

Dallas-based Neiman-Marcus is a pioneer in pushing customer's fantasies to the outer limits. The store's exotic 'His and Hers' gifts have been the stars of their holiday catalog since their debut in 1960.

This year's renditions are exquisite wood desks handcrafted by artist Michael Speaker. 'His' comes in the shape of a Red River Longhorn steer of exotic woods patterned into a mosaic of 23,000 tiles. Real horns that span 42 inches beef up this lifelike creature.

For her, Speaker will duplicate a favorite horse in wooden tiles, or custom-design an equine from the imagination, fitted as desk or a vanity. Prices depend on the specifics of an order.

'We have had inquiries from Florida on special production for the horses, but not for the steer. The steer probably won't sell until closer to Christmas,' says Neiman-Marcus senior vice-president Bill Williams. 'Really big-ticket items tend to be last minute purchases.'

Granted, the prospect of turning an office into Noah's ark isn't exactly a turn on for just anybody. 'But for someone who made their fortune in cattle or horses, I think they'd like it,' says Williams.

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Unlike Sakowitz's 'Ultimate Gift' fantasies, 'His and Her' selections have sold 'every year they've been made', says Williams. Standouts in Neiman-Marcus history are the 2,000-year-old-plus Egyptian mummy cases at $16,000; a $29,995 dinosaur safari through the 'wilds of Central Utah', and 'His and Her' camels at $4,125 a pop.

'One camel is still alive in Fort Worth, Texas,' says Williams of the 1967 catalog gift.

Tiffany & Co.'s idea of truly creative gift giving comes in karats. 'In my eyes, our diamonds are our fantasy,' says Lincoln Foster, the company's senior vice-president.

'In the catalog this year there is a necklace which is shown and each and every diamond comes with a certificate to state that it is not only perfectly proportioned and internally flawless, but it's also colorless -- that I've never seen before.'

The book doesn't tell how much this perfect slice of ice encrusted with more than 50 round diamonds goes for. Foster's only clue is 'it's under $3 million'.

And based on his knowledge of the Tiffany customer, he says 'Yes, we do believe it will sell. Because it is the only one in the world and each stone I view as a wonderful investment in a bank account.'

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