A Chinese yoke-back chair that made its television debut on the set of the ABC sitcom "Ugly Betty" now makes frequent cameo appearances: It has appeared in a $6.2 million Midtown Manhattan condo and a $10 million Chelsea triplex.
The former prop—it was located in the office of the show's villainous Wilhelmina Slater—is now used in staging ultraluxury properties for sale. It belongs to a select group of home furnishings—iconic seating and eyebrow-raising art—found in some of the most exclusive properties on the market.
"They look like they're from Architectural Digest instead of a staged apartment," said Cheryl Eisen about her eclectic collection of furnishings. Ms. Eisen, president of New York-based home-staging company Interior Marketing Group, said she buys most of the furnishings at a fraction of their retail cost through websites like Craigslist and secondhand stores. In turn, she charges anywhere from $20,000 to stage a one-bedroom apartment to $100,000 for a 6,000-square-foot condo.
The distinctive yoke-back chair, which stands 8 feet high, seemingly contradicts advice given to homeowners to avoid showy pieces that appeal to certain tastes. In high-end real estate, many stagers use unique furnishings and designer pieces to add cachet and make each room memorable.
"If you go too neutral and bland, it's just boring," said Hadas Dembo, principal at Mise en Scène Design, a luxury staging company based in New York.
At the Mark Hotel on New York's Upper East Side, developer Izak Senbahar, president of Alexico Group, likes to use art to add impact. His relationship with local galleries has allowed him to borrow works from interesting artists, he said. For example, Rachel Lee Hovnanian's piece "LA Lights," part of a series of full-length mirrors with a pointed sense of humor, has appeared in a model apartment used to show off the units' amenities. When a preening guest approaches the mirror, the surface illuminates to reveal tiny, iridescent Botox bottles with preserved narcissus flowers. Ten units went up for sale in April, and in the six months since the item was staged in the apartment, he said, three units have sold—including the model, which sold for $6.9 million in January.
Since then, the mirror has sold to a private collector. The artist said it was priced at $48,000.
But luxury doesn't have to cost a small fortune. Ms. Eisen first found the "Ugly Betty" chairs, as she calls them, on a secondhand furniture website. She bought two of the chairs for under $100 each two years ago, she said, to furnish a triplex apartment on West 23rd Street. The unit sold for $8.2 million shortly after the staging. After that, one of the chairs made its way to Central Park West, where it stands handsomely near the fireplace in the nearly $12 million listing of late actress Celeste Holm. Its twin is currently in the $8 million penthouse at 1212 Fifth Ave., the same building in which it helped sell another unit listed for $6.2 million in November.
Elsewhere, another chair holds court. Oozing "Mad Men" chic, the classic Eames chair has been all over metro New York, including the office of an Upper West Side townhouse listed for about $3.7 million. In November, the black-leather status symbol helped sell a condo in Gramercy for roughly $2.3 million. Another appearance, in a 1920s manor in Mount Kisco, N.Y., helped seal the deal on a long-term lease.
"It smacks of modernity," said Barbara Brock, a principal at New York-based staging company Sold with Style.
The company purchased the chair for $1,250 in March 2011, and it has been leased out for 654 of the past 690 days, said Jay Hart, a principal at Sold with Style. Considering they typically recoup the value of an item within 270 days, he said they've made back their investment in spades.
In Miami, Jason Atkins, founder and CEO of Tui Lifestyle, buys furniture in bulk at wholesale prices. Unlike some competitors, Tui Lifestyle only sells its furniture instead of leasing it. Most pieces are used for staging, but consumers can buy directly from the company as well. The average invoice for a complete staging ranges from $23,000 to $32,000. One recent project includes a 1,128-square-foot unit in Miami's Paramount Bay, which sold for $758,000—one of the highest prices per square foot in the building. The listing agent then sold the furnishings to the buyer for over $90,000, Mr. Atkins said.
As for why staging works, Mr. Atkins cites an example from a different industry. Yacht advertisements might show pretty people in bathing suits partying on the deck, he said, yet "you get the boat—none of the other stuff. But you buy into that dream anyway."
Corrections & Amplifications
In an earlier version of this article, Tui Lifestyle was incorrectly identified as Tui Lifestyles.
A version of this article appeared February 1, 2013, on page M12 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Furniture That Gets Around.