The Fijian island of Katafanga is listed for sale at $20 million. (Peter Ruprecht )
Some people are happy collecting fast cars or nice watches. But the ultimate vanity purchase may be the private island.
Billionaire Richard Branson owns several. Magician David Copperfield has a dozen. Singer Celine Dion is trying to sell hers. And tech titan Larry Ellison is closing a deal to buy nearly all of the Hawaiian island of Lanai.
Although private islands are often associated with the very rich, they aren't always that exclusive or even all that expensive.
PHOTOS: Private islands for sale
Private Islands Inc., a Toronto-based island marketing firm, lists about 500 islands worldwide from less than $50,000 to more than $100 million, Chief Executive Chris Krolow said.
U.S., Canadian and British buyers make up about 80% of the market; far-flung locales such as the Caribbean have a more international buyer base, he said. The Bahamas and Belize are hot, as is Panama. In the Mediterranean, Greek islands are popular.
"Before the recession, a lot of islands were priced by owners who had what we call Coke-bottle glasses," Krolow said. "They put crazy price tags on their islands."
Price drops in areas such as the Bahamas and a sense that values have bottomed out have brought increased interest in island ownership.
"It has opened the door to people looking," Krolow said. "They are more comfortable now."
Ego, extravagance and identity play roles in some high-profile trophy purchases, experts say, but others are motivated by privacy and security.
"These types of people are looking to create something for themselves, to put up a flag and say, 'This is my own little country,'" Krolow said. "They all tend to be very entrepreneurial. Not just the wealthy, but those who are determined to do something different."
Celebrities have long populated the ranks of island owners, including Marlon Brando, Nicolas Cage and Johnny Depp. Even those not pursued by paparazzi can understand the desire for seclusion these days, said clinical psychologist Stephen Goldbart, co-founder of the San Francisco-based Money, Meaning & Choices Institute.
"We are all living in a world where there isn't much privacy," said Goldbart. One of his clients has bought an island, and several others are interested in making their own purchases. "The need for feeling safe and secure has increased radically since the economic downturn."
Island buyers tend to fall into two groups: people who are making lifestyle choices and entrepreneurs developing resorts.
Oracle Corp.CEO Ellison's recent deal to buy 98% of Lanai could be considered an example of a trophy purchase since ownership has been a money-losing proposition for seller David Murdock, the Los Angeles billionaire who controls Dole Food Co.
The estimated $500-million deal makes little sense from a financial standpoint, said Paul Habibi, who teaches real estate at the UCLA Anderson School of Management. Among the reasons he cites are a lack of resort potential because of a mostly rocky beachfront and scant infrastructure.
"It is probably more of a quality-of-life investment — a pride-of-ownership purchase," Habibi said. "Who wouldn't want to own a Hawaiian island?"
Murdock, though unloading the 141-square-mile island, is keeping his Lanai home and some other assets, including a woodworking shop and 1,000 rare orchid plants.
Dion and her husband, Rene Angelil, put their private island up for sale in Quebec in late spring. The couple, who also own a home in Florida, could seldom get to their island mansion because of Dion's touring schedule, so they listed it for sale at more than $29 million.
The fence-enclosed 20-acre isle near Montreal is reached by bridge across a river. A slate-roofed, French Normandy-style house resembling a castle stands at its heart, offering 24,000 square feet of opulent living space.
Then there are trophy islands that amount to white elephants.
Red Rock is a nearly six-acre undeveloped island in San Francisco Bay. Accessible by boat or helicopter and without structures, it was recently reduced to $5 million from an original listed price of $22 million.
Michael Caffey understands the downside of owing a coastal island in California. The TV producer inherited a 1.3-acre parcel called White Rock Island off Santa Catalina Island and has been trying to sell it for years.
Listed at $657,000, the land is virtually impossible to develop "unless you are the governor," Caffey said. "The problem is the Coastal Commission."
Miami-based entrepreneur Christian Jagodzinski bought his Fiji atoll when he was flush with funds from the sale of his online business to Amazon in the late '90s.
"At the time you have a lot of money, you look at what kinds of toys to buy," said Jagodzinski, who splits his time between Florida and the south of France. Houses and property seemed to be purchases he could both enjoy and make money on.