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Charity auctions – when the art world puts its hand in its pocket, or not

Howard Lake | 7 July 2016 | Blogs

Charity auctions are trouble. Ask any auctioneer say Barnebys, the art and auction search engine which has been described as the Google of the artworld.
Art auctions are hard work, often a thankless task and sometimes the auctioneer does not even get a thank you. Once in a while they make up for all that by delivering great items for sale, a huge wealthy enthusiastic bidding audience and top prices achieved. Everyone goes home happy then and the auction house is spared the ignominy and cost of ‘buying in’ the lots to save its own face. In February this year Christie’s auctioned off ten items from the archives of the James Bond Spectre film and raised £2.8m for Médecins Sans Frontières.
Barnebys, the largest and fastest growing portal to the international world of auctions through its unique free search engine keeps a close watch on trends including the latest on charity auctions; who is selling what to raise money for whom? They cover everything from the big boys – Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Phillips to the local auctioneer round the corner.
But love them or hate them charity auctions are done by all the great names in the art and auction world as they represent good PR. Most of the big name auctioneers have one or two people who make charity auctions their thing. In London, Nick Bonham and Colin Sheaf are two of the best known. Sotheby’s offers Harry Dalmeny , Christies fields Hugh Edmeades, and Phillips boasted Simone de Pury, until he left, one of the most glamorous auctioneers in the world.
When one of the great charity names calls to ask the question of an auction house: “Will you do an auction for us?” they are usually referred to a team of in-house experts, the Head of Events, the Head of PR and the Head of Marketing. The auction house wants its pound of flesh.
The questions the auction house will ask are: “how many lots, what are they, will you be able to guarantee serious bidders will turn up.” The charity will want to know what slice if any the auction house will take or whether they will do it gratis and for nothing if the charity picks up the cost of the food and drink.
Prize lots might include a holiday, a car, a work of art, dinner with a celebrity, shooting with the Duke of Bonanza, a case of wine, tickets to a sold out show in London or New York, signed copies of famous footballs, sports kit and or boots, a slightly used private jet. The list is endless.
The auction house is doing the event for two reasons, good PR and access to the charity’s little black book of high net worth individuals, the charity is doing it for much the same reason, good PR and access to the auction house clients and with a bonus of a big cheque (hopefully) at the end of the night.

Auction of women artists' work at Barnebys

Auction of women artists’ work at Barnebys

And that’s the catch. There are no guarantees that the tricky event will raise a bean. It’s a bit like religion, you have to have faith. And that is where the high priests of the charity auction circuit come into their own.
Pontus Silfverstolpe, one of the founders of Barnebys says:

“One of the ingredients that guarantees that magic happens at any auction is the quality of the auctioneer, in charity auctions it is pretty much all about the auctioneer.”

He highlights one such star CK Swett in the USA who has some 200 charity auctions to his name and who has raised some $20m for charities. No mean feat.
It does not always go that way. An infamous charity auction that has never been forgotten at one famous London auction house was when a world famous motorcar marque decided to sell off works of art by its car designers to raise money for a cancer charity. The saleroom was packed but as the champagne flowed and the chat amongst the car owners provided by the famous car marque got going their enthusiasm was such that the auctioneer on the night, could barely make himself heard. At the end of the evening the take was pitiful and the auction house owned a lot of worthless art.
One has to orchestrate a charity auction with precision to avoid disaster. Too late in the evening, too many lots, a room that is badly lit and too hot, all these can lead to a less than happy result. Ideally you want no more than ten lots and for the auction to start – if it’s a dinner – immediately after the main course has been served and following the main speaker who makes the charity pitch or a three minute video showing the work of the charity. Make it lively and fun. Charity auctions are particularly difficult as often the items have no intrinsic value. If you can try to estimate the price of the lot and mention that just before you start the bidding. My advice would always be, never treat a charity auction as an easy fundraiser. Plan it with military precision.
So these are the golden rules: To avert disaster, the Auction house and the charity must work hard to publicize the event, spend lavishly on list building and classy invitations. They will argue about how many lots to sell. Too few and it looks thin, too many and the audience e will have lost the will to live. It is a fine judgment. Ideally there will be no more than ten lots on the night. A silent online auction takes care of the rest.
On the night timing is all. Guests need time to enjoy the hospitality but not for too long otherwise the champagne and social interest in each other rather than the job at hand – a charity auction – slips the minds of the audience.
When everything has been done right and the charity and the auction house have filled the saleroom with the right kind of audience, got the lots to be sold just right, and judged the timing right, then sparks can fly and prices will be reached that don’t shame a black tie night at a top arts auction.


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Names of London’s top charity auctioneers

Harry Dalmeny, Sotheby’s UK Chairman. Lord Dalmeny has executive responsibility for Business Development and continues to lead the Country House & Single-Owner Sales department.
Hugh Edmeades
Ed Dolman, CEO
Julian Roup is consultant to Barnebys, the international auction search service (or aggregator)  which features, at any given time, over a half million items for sale through about 1,600 auction houses worldwide. The firm employees people in Sweden, the UK, France, Germany, Spain, China and the US.