There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
This mansion is in Potomac: This mansion is in Fairfax:
This story will appear in this week’s print edition of the Washington City Paper. I’ve been blogging about Vijay Taneja since mid August. See these posts for more information on his Bollywood business background and his two nearly identical mansions.
Past the circular foyer, two twisting staircases, and a yellow glass chandelier, bankruptcy attorney H. Jason Gold stood with a small microphone, ready to kick off the day’s auction.
The house was crowded with some 60 people who had meandered through the sprawling 21,500-square-foot home on a hill in Potomac.
Gold must have felt like he had been here before and, actually, he sort of had: Just 10 months before, he had attended another auction of a house that looked almost the same—same circular driveway, same grandiose columns outside, same rich man’s amenities: jacuzzis, saunas, home basement theaters with stadium seating. Both homes had been owned, in fact, by the same guy—who built, and then lost, his dream house. Twice.
Vijay Taneja was that man, as at least some auction attendees knew.
He pleaded guilty in November to one count of conspiracy in connection with a mortgage fraud scheme and ended up being sentenced to seven years in prison, leaving the Potomac house, a twin house in Fairfax, and two more worth, in total, $10 to $15 million—a plum account to auction house Tranzon Fox. It’s the biggest account the local office has handled this year, according to publicist Michelle Stein.
“I think it’s the nicest of all the Taneja properties that we’re selling by far,” declared Gold, a partner with Wiley Rein law firm, of the house at 9034 Bronson Drive. “It’s in the nicest location, easily of the highest value.”
The story of Taneja’s rise and fall is intriguing even without the duplicate houses. He was a mortgage broker and homebuilder, but he perhaps gained the greatest renown as a Bollywood-show producer.
The son of an Indian diplomat, he came to the U.S. as a 10-year-old, reported the Press Trust of India at the time of Taneja’s January sentencing. Starting roughly a decade ago, he began to produce live Bollywood stage shows starring famous Indian actors and actresses, along with casts of 60 or 70 dancers, re-enacting movies before huge crowds.
As the shows’ popularity grew, Taneja went on to coordinate 12-city tours throughout the United States, according to real estate agent Homi Irani.
“He would do two at least a year,” says Irani, a friend of Taneja. Locally, the casts often performed at one of George Mason University’s auditoriums before a crowd of as many as 8,000.
Irani says he met Taneja through Sanjay Dutt, a famous Indian actor and childhood friend who performed in some of the American productions. Irani says he helped Taneja with his original purchase of the Potomac property.
On the day of the auction last week, Irani described the whole turn of events as “sad.” He regarded Taneja as a shy but kind, man: “He wouldn’t talk much; he was a silent guy, very soft-spoken.”
Taneja’s Fairfax home was sold for nearly $4.1 million last November in the first Tranzon-run auction. Nearly 100 people attended, with a decent contingent from the local Indian community. Tranzon employee Robert Paxton ran three open houses beforehand.
The Maryland house is strikingly similar, especially from the front (it lacks a prayer room and an outdoor pool). But according to various sources, Taneja never lived there. Tranzon reached out to the losing bidders from the Fairfax auction, thinking they might like another shot at a similar house—even if it was in a different state. But Paxton spotted very few familiar faces.
“I’ve seen a couple that I’ve recognized, but it’s all Maryland tags,” he added, nodding toward the line of silver and black Mercedes-Benzes and Lexuses in the yard.
Not every attendee was interested in bidding. One Virginia man was there checking out the auction process—should a similar opportunity arise on his side of the Potomac. Another man, touring the basement, said the house had piqued his interest when it first listed for around $7 million before going into foreclosure, but he was no longer house-shopping.
Tom Williams of Virginia Commerce Bank, Taneja’s lender, wandered the top floors’ expansive bedrooms and bathrooms and closets before the auction commenced. He said Taneja had taken out several loans to fund construction of several smaller homes, which he’d completed and sold.
“This was the first big one—other than the Fairfax house—that was on this scale,” Williams said.
The auction bidding started at $3.5 million. Well past the $4 million mark, two potential buyers began to duke it out. It turned out they were pals—surprised to find themselves in a bidding war.
“Lovely, they’re friends,” said the auctioneer.
The bidding climbed in increments large enough to purchase a whole house in some places—$100,000. Then the bids went up by $25,000. Then, finally, by $5,000.
Shailender Gupta, a Potomac resident, prevailed with a bid of $4.79 million. He’d been eyeing the house for a while, even making an earlier offer when the property was bank-owned, he explained later that day.
He needed a house big enough for seven: He lives with his wife, his two sons, a daughter-in-law, Mukti Gupta, and two grandchildren.
“We like the way it’s all set up with two master bedrooms. We like the theater downstairs. We love the kitchen,” Mukti Gupta said, standing right in it, where coffee and a plate of donut holes were being served. “We love how the house is very open.”
The final sale price, approved in court the following day, had a 5 percent buyer’s fee tacked on, making it $5.03 million—a record price tag for a Taneja mansion, just as bankruptcy lawyer Gold had predicted.
This staircase is in Potomac:
This staircase is in Fairfax: