Char­ity auc­tions have al­ways been sure-fire mon­ey­mak­ers, but the world’s top phi­lan­thropists are tak­ing them to new heights. Oliver Giles in­ves­ti­gates

Hong Kong Tatler - - Life | Philanthropy -

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.”

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