ALL FOR ONE, ONE FOR ALL
Charity auctions have always been sure-fire moneymakers, but the world’s top philanthropists are taking them to new heights. Oliver Giles investigates
As any fundraiser worth their weight in gold will tell you, there’s a tried and tested formula for hosting a successful charity auction. The sale should take place at a glamorous fundraising ball. It should begin after dinner (and often after copious amounts of wine) and end just before the DJ takes to the decks. Finally, it’s best to have a variety of lots on the block, so guests can bid on everything from a painting by Picasso to a Piaget watch to a luxury holiday in Palau.
But these events are falling out of favour with some in the world’s top 1 per cent. Rather than giving away one or two items to be sold at a glittering gala dinner, leading philanthropists have begun selling their entire collections in one fell swoop at blockbuster sales at Christie’s or Sotheby’s, then donating all the proceeds to charity. There’s no red carpet or champagne tower at these events; instead, the auctions are almost identical to the commercial ones hosted by Christie’s and Sotheby’s—except for where the money ends up.
The phenomenon of single-donor charity sales at auction houses was thrust into the spotlight late last year when Christie’s announced it would be selling the collection of the late Peggy and David Rockefeller in a series of auctions in early May to raise money for a variety of causes specified by the couple. As you might expect, this was no ordinary art collection. The Rockefellers had Picasso’s famous Young Girl with a
Flower Basket hanging in the library of their mansion on New York’s Upper East Side, with paintings by Monet, Gauguin and other masters dotting other rooms. The initiative was not just unprecedented for a charity sale; it was unprecedented for any auction in history. Christie’s estimated the series of auctions would raise US$500 million, while the Wall Street Journal thought it would be the first auction to ever top US$1 billion. In the end, buyers shelled out US$832.6 million for charity, a staggering figure whatever the expectations.
The Rockefellers are not the first philanthropists to partner with a major auction house to sell their collection for the greater good. Lily Safra, of the Brazilian banking family, held a charity auction at Christie’s in Geneva called Jewels for Hope in 2012, raising US$37.9 million. A couple of years later, Sotheby’s hosted a series of auctions of the estate of American horticulturalist, art collector and philanthropist Bunny Mellon, the widow of the billionaire philanthropist Paul Mellon, bringing in an enormous US$218.1 million for charitable causes.
Asian philanthropists are getting involved, too. In April, Sotheby’s hosted a wine sale in Hong Kong titled the Philanthropist’s Cellar, an auction of 800 lots of extraordinary Bordeaux wine collected by one couple (who requested to remain anonymous) over decades. “I’ve never ever seen a collection of Bordeaux of this quality,” says Adam Bilbey, Sotheby’s head of wine in Asia. “My colleagues did the estimates for me to review and they said, ‘Oh, it’s about 7.5, 8 million,’ and I said, ‘8 million Hong Kong dollars, that’s great, I didn’t realise they had so much wine.’ And they said, ‘No, US dollars,’ and I honestly almost fell off the chair.” The Philanthropist’s Cellar sale went on to exceed those estimates, raising HK$127 million for Stanford University’s Rural Education Action Programme (Reap), which works to provide education, nutrition and health services to impoverished communities in rural China.
But as there are so many ways to raise money, why are philanthropists choosing to part with their treasured collections? One of the main attractions, it seems, is the total transparency of an auction. “I think when you’re dealing with philanthropy and charities, transparency is very important,” says Ben Clark, deputy chairman of Christie’s in Asia. An auction, where the results are declared in public and published immediately afterwards, leaves no room for gossip or dodgy dealings.
There is also the network of connections that a company like Christie’s or Sotheby’s provides. Even the most powerful collectors—such as the Rockefellers—can’t reach the same audience as an auction house. “We can put due effort and time into touring and exhibiting the collection, or highlights of the collection at least, to the greatest audience globally,” Clark says. “Whereas if you’re doing something privately, that’s very difficult. You can maybe take it and show it to one or two people discreetly, but we bring the largest possible audience to bear on the whole collection.”
On top of drumming up interest among wealthy collectors, Sotheby’s and Christie’s are also experienced at generating buzz with the press and public. “The philanthropists behind the Philanthropist’s Cellar are very, very discreet and do not want press about themselves at all,” says Bilbey. “But I think they wanted us to ring the bell and shout far and wide about the Stanford Reap projects.” In the auction catalogue, Sotheby’s indicated what the sale of each lot would bring to Reap. Next to a blurb about a case of Château Mouton Rothschild 1970 (valued at HK$42,000–60,000), for example, was a note reading: “Your purchase would support an entire county’s online computer-assisted learning for one year. This is giving more than 10,000 children a chance to keep from falling behind.”
Single-owner charity sales do seem to be becoming more common, but it’s hard to predict when the next one will take place. “Generally, these magnanimous gestures from collectors come towards the end of a collecting cycle,” Clark says. “That’s not necessarily the end of their life, but there’s a period where people collect, which might be 10, 15, 20 years, then there’s a period when they might consolidate. That’s usually the point at which collectors think about philanthropy. If you’re a collector for three years, you don’t automatically think, ‘How can I be philanthropic with my collection?’ But after 20 years you might start thinking about how you can use it to make a difference.”