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A scammer, a missing statue and a very dangerous staircase: What’s going on at 224 Sea Cliff Avenue?

Andrew Chamings | SFGATE.COM

Rear exterior view of home featuring an odd, winding staircase that leads to the ocean
244 Sea Cliff Ave., San Francisco
Courtesy Mark Levinson / Compass

“You’re writing an article? What kind of article? Salacious?” 

Real estate agent Mark Levinson is showing me inside 224 Sea Cliff Ave., one of the most storied and stunning homes in San Francisco, and he’s all too aware of the iconic pink mansion’s troubled history. 
But it was a staircase, not the former owner’s notoriety, that drew me here. Before I can tell Levinson that I’m most interested in seeing the mazey steps that drop down over the cliff to a hidden beach (the subject of many curious Reddit posts and tweets), he has to take a call about the condition of the property’s cliff that looks over the Golden Gate Bridge.  

“Show yourself around, go anywhere, I need to talk to this person about a rockslide. There’s no rockslide,” he assures me, leaving me alone in the four-story home.

I poke around the six-bedroom, 7,000-plus-square-foot house, built in 1925. It’s dated, but beautiful. Dark nooks, hidden wine cellars, tiled terraces and doors that seem to lead nowhere. I finally get to the garage where in 2014 the FBI seized four crates of stolen art, worth about $11 million today. I also wonder where the fifth crate is, as the feds did, the one containing a bronze replica statue of Degas’ “Little Dancer,” valued at about $3 million. 

Interior view of an empty concrete basement
$11 million of art in four crates was seized by the FBI from this garage in 2014. A fifth crate, containing a bronze replica of Degas’ “Little Dancer,” is still missing. Andrew Chamings/SFGATE

The vast Mediterranean-style home is currently on the market for $15.4 million, but only last year it was on for $17.5 million. In 2016 it was listed at $19.7 million. To say the sale of “Lucky” Luke Brugnara’s former residence is complicated may be an understatement. 

Real estate tycoon-turned-felon Luke Dominic Brugnara grew up in San Francisco’s Sunset District. In the 1990s, he was on the forefront of commercial real estate dealings in the city, and it’s estimated that by 1997 he owned half a million square feet of downtown office space. His holdings included the Bulletin Building on Mission Street, the Royal Insurance Building at 201 Sansome and the historic 351 California Street in the Financial District.

Brugnara also bought property in Las Vegas and, in 2006, leased his 11-bedroom Las Vegas mansion to Michael Jackson reportedly for more than $1 million for six months, after the superstar’s last-ever public performance. When attempting to open a casino, Brugnara was denied a gambling license by the gaming commission, which cited poor financial bookkeeping and allegations that he had made death threats to associates and government officials.

By 2010, Brugnara was in jail, serving concurrent sentences for tax evasion on capital gains on his properties and, bizarrely, for closing a hole in his dam on a property in Gilroy and therefore killing migrating steelhead trout, an endangered species. (Brugnara was also once in negotiations to provide the entire garlic city’s water supply.) 

Exterior view of 244 Sea Cliff, featuring a pink facade
244 Sea Cliff Ave., San Francisco
Courtesy Mark Levinson / Compass

In 2014, out of jail and living back in his salmon-pink Sea Cliff castle, Brugnara received the delivery of five crates of art from New York by way of a dealer in Tennessee. After refusing to pay for the art, he was charged with mail fraud, and most of the art was seized from the garage. The recovered artwork included a series of etchings by Pablo Picasso and 16 Willem de Kooning paintings, but the Edgar Degas statue was never found. 

“He had five cases of art in the garage, $11 million worth,” Levinson, a former acquaintance of Brugnara, says, “But he couldn’t afford 11,000, or anything.” 

While awaiting trial, Brugnara escaped from the San Francisco federal courthouse while under the custody of his attorney, only to be recaptured in Los Gatos a week later. (Brugnara told ABC7’s Dan Noyes in a prison interview in handcuffs the reason he absconded was because he was being “tortured” in prison to get him to plead guilty.)

In a wild court case in San Francisco, Brugnara represented himself and told U.S. District Attorney Robin Harris that she dressed “like a Nazi” in front of the jury. He claimed both that the art was a gift, and that it couldn’t be art fraud anyway as it was all fakes. 

Brugnara was sentenced to seven years, including 471 days for contempt of court because of his conduct. He was released this year, Levinson says.

Aerial view of 224 Sea Cliff, showing the ocean and direct view of Golden Gate Bridge
244 Sea Cliff Ave., San Francisco
Courtesy Mark Levinson / Compass

Levinson has represented the sale of 224 Sea Cliff numerous times, going back to the 1990s when it was lived in by Cheech Marin of Cheech & Chong fame. (Levinson tells me in the ’90s he would party here with Marin and his wife and other celebs.)

Levinson says the home is now owned by a financial group who were the last lenders when Brugnara filed for bankruptcy. This complexity is reflected in the Compass listing blurb that states, “Federal Bankruptcy Court has jurisdiction over the sale of this Property … an accepted offer will require bankruptcy court approval and, at court’s discretion, may be subject to overbid.”

There’s no doubt that this could be one of the most desirable homes in San Francisco, if only for the view and setting alone. Levinson says that it will need a big renovation to get there. 

Interior view showing an open area with wood floors and a fireplace
244 Sea Cliff Ave., San Francisco
Courtesy Mark Levinson / Compass

“Techies will tear it down and start again; you don’t spend $15 million on a house and have it look like this,” he says. “It’s a great opportunity, this is easily a $25 million house. You’re looking at the real deal.”

As Levinson is talking me through what a “$3.5 to $7 million” update to the house may look like, he gets another call and leads me out of the building with some urgency. 

He takes me out onto the street and peers over the fence. There lies his Compass real estate sign, smashed and thrown out of view.  “Ah, now I don’t have a sign.” 

Looking down the street I’m reminded how coveted property is in this enclave. Sea Cliff is one of a few master-planned communities in San Francisco, and this street, which offers the most desirable cliff homes, is currently home to Marc Benioff and Jack Dorsey (who also bought the home next door to his first mansion on the street).

Other notable residents over the years have reportedly included Robin Williams, George Soros, Ansel Adams, Tom Steyer and Sharon Stone. 

Arial view of 224 Sea Cliff from the ocean looking towards the rear staircase
244 Sea Cliff Ave., San Francisco
Courtesy Mark Levinson / Compass

After checking out the three roof terraces, the loft with fireplace and the stunning view from the master bedroom, I finally get to investigate the reason I came here. 

It’s hard to know why the staircase is designed the way it is. From the water, the oddity makes 224 the most identifiable home on Sea Cliff Avenue, the rocks crisscrossed with bright pink walls. The steps zigzag and even fork off to a walkway that ends abruptly over the water without even room for a chair. 

But the end point of the steps, a tiny cove at the bottom, is maybe the real selling point for this property.

Aerial view, looking down at the zig-zag staircase that leads from the home to the ocean
244 Sea Cliff Ave., San Francisco
Courtesy Mark Levinson / Compass

“Dig this,” Levinson tells me, “at super low tide, I walked all the way around to China Beach.”

He also says that when the water is out, beachgoers at popular Baker Beach to the north sometimes wander onto the little beach. He doesn’t, however, mention how dangerous it is, and on my visit the tide was up, and the water was choppy.

As I descend the steps and get closer to the water I wonder why the only part of the meandering staircase that doesn’t have a safety wall is the part at the base where one slip could send you into the waves. I inch as close to the water as I can before feeling like I could be swept away. 

View from the edge of the staircase looking at the rocks and ocean below
244 Sea Cliff Ave., San Francisco
Andrew Chamings/SFGATE

Looking behind me I see why these homes are some of the most desirable in the world. Glass walls, expansive decks and infinity pools jut out over the Golden Gate. 224’s eccentricity and notoriety are what makes it so compelling to me, and I imagine how a small fortune will be spent to modernize it to look like the others in a few years.

Levinson himself started life as an art dealer in San Francisco in the early ’80s before moving into high-end real estate. He’s since bought and sold homes for Marc Benioff, Don Johnson and even represented Brugnara himself a decade ago. 

On the way out, I ask him where he thinks the Degas is. “In storage somewhere, or in Russia, who knows,” he says. 

We again pass his broken Compass sign that has fallen down the hill a little too far for him to retrieve. I ask if this sale is a headache.

“It is more work than I expected,” he says as his phone rings again. “This one is a little different.”