Ted: The Ins and Outs of Auction Houses

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By Ted Kruckel

If you can't go to a museum, you go to an auction house. At least, that's always been my understanding. (The primary benefit is that wine is served.) Auctions are a part of so many important events, and many marketers turn to the best auction houses to add a veneer of sophistication and/or legitimacy to their goals.

As a former sponsor, this worked for me more than once. The auction firms need support, so deals are struck. These equations vary, so I decided to see how a few recent efforts added up.

A slew of invitations with gadzooks of sponsors fell into my mailbox recently, so off I went, three nights in a row, to Christie's auction house, for the Tibet House, the Central Park Conservancy, and an auction of Peter and the Wolf-inspired art created by Bono. And later I headed to Sotheby's for a preview of the Wolfgang Joop auction. Here's how they went:

Tibet House...Richard Gere...the Dalai Lama...Uma Thurman...aren't you intrigued? Enter the silent auction room, after a very serious and professional greeting, and one realizes this is not a Christie's-run sale. The auction house is fussier about how it presents work. At this event, intricately woven items are thumb-tacked to the wall, aged/gilded artwork is mixed with local designer cashmere goods—the initial impact is not overwhelming. (Also: This truly Tibetan stuff—is it kosher that they take it out of the country to sell it to us here? Let's assume yes.)

But Uma is here, and her regal elegance equals 20 dum-dum celebrities. Sponsors hoping to bask in the rays of this star's corona are vividly on display. Out front, a Saab beckons both guests and passersby, and upstairs Lisa Henriques Hughes, the publisher of event sponsor Conde Nast Traveler, tries to sell me one of her advertiser's fancy plasma screens. These are two of her three advertisers in tow tonight. This makes sense...Tibet...travel magazine...and shows how marketers can link up properly.

My bitchy concerns about the casual silent-auction styling are erased by Uma's eloquent introduction of her father, Robert Thurman, the president of the Tibet House. Suddenly, this is a family affair—low-key, underproduced, not particularly jazzy, but engaging. This is a Tibet House auction, not a Christie's auction, and for the dollar amount charged, one guest leaves happy.

Auction houses have different kinds of auctions. Sometimes the party sponsor runs the show, other times it's a house evening, with other participants involved. Those who rent a venue for a private sale set their own rules, without the house imprimatur, but is something still implied? At the Tibet event, there was no way to know if the items for sale were vetted by the house unless you read the conditions for sale on page 31 of the program. (They explained that neither Christie's nor Tibet House verifies the authenticity of any items. Now I can understand why Christie's has to back away from a charitable sale of items they didn't assemble, but shouldn't the charity vet its own items? For the record, this is how it is often done.) There's a big difference between an auction house's rules and a sponsor's rules, but I don't think guests really know it.

And even if they have the information, they don't always pay attention. For a charity event at one of the biggies that I organized, we stated repeatedly in the auction guide that only the rules printed in the guide applied. But the auctioneer provided by the auction house, donating his time in return for dinner and social status (I guess), muttered an estimated dollar value attached to an item, which they are not supposed to do if it is not a house auction. When the buyer got home and realized that the piece wasn't vetted, he asked for his money back. It can be tricky.

This is why the idea of hosting or sponsoring an auction at an auction house warrants analysis. Hosts and planners like the cachet and pedigree, and the auction houses get to takes in party rental fees. But sometimes it doesn't quite gel.

Like the next night, at the Central Park Conservancy shindig to peddle more than 50 park benches designed by artists and celebrities. The tie/scarf-wearing wealthy folks make for a much kickier entrance, but soon it's apparent they're not bidding, at least on some of the silent auction offerings, and three go without even an opening bid.

The high-low mix of fine artists, creative people and just plain famous folks has resulted in a confusing and uneven display of imprecise corporate do-gooding. Target, the night's host, has to be held accountable I guess.

Don't get me wrong. Like many Target efforts, it's well-presented and styled (Rand M. Productions did handsome work). But I couldn't help being offended that the Today Show bench—it was supposed to have been created by Katie and Matt, but one must assume it was actually executed by a motor-skill challenged intern—was presented on par with a flat, stout, sleek and architectural bench by designer Clodagh (hers went for $16,000). Clodagh's a friend, so I chased the suburban ladies who parked their drinks and purses on hers away. But mere steps away, I noticed a not-so-sleek guest who parked herself on another bench and made cell phone calls in plain sight of a guard. For an hour. Do the auction houses have different security policies based on their involvement?

Here's my point: What are the quality standards in this game? How does the ticket-buyer know whether he or she is buying a corporate strategic communications initiative, or an auction house-vetted piece of art? While that's being decided, I think sponsors are wise to play on the ambiguities.

OK. Now it's Friday, and here we go again to, by my amateur reading, an actual Christie's house auction of paintings and works on paper by rock star and global agitator Bono, themed for Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf. It's also for a charity, but it is one where their house rules apply.

The house is packed. This Bono character is quite charming. People magazine, wise to sponsor and wiser not to muddy the water, stays out of the way. (Do I need to redisclose that People is a former client? I guess I do.) Bono tries to shake the hand of every front-room attendee, and the artwork is beautifully staged.

I ask guests, savvy people I know, whether they think this is an actual Christie's auction or not, or whether it makes a difference. While everyone has an opinion, I realize that my assumption is correct: Almost nobody can articulate the distinction, yet they do care and assume that if the auction is held at Christie's then the works sold are authenticated in some way or another.

At the Sotheby's Wolfgang Joop auction preview, the house rules do apply, and his impressive collection of modernist furniture is staged quietly and museum-like. (Joop was a German fashion designer—remember all those Joop! cologne advertisements? You don't see them any more, which I guess is why there's a sale of all his belongings.) Uptown swingers like party queen Rena Sindi and City Club hotelier Jeff Klein mingle with Coach's Reed Krakoff and architect Lee Mindel. But don't let the easy elegance fool you—there are sponsors afoot here too. I don't often drink vodka, but if I do, I'm glad if the on-hand literature discloses that the vodka is made from grapes, as Ciroc's does. Honesty is the best policy.

Later, we need to talk about silent versus live auctions, and other ways to kill a party. But parties will have auctions, and auctions will have parties, and on we go.

On this past MondayPlayboy arrived at 20 Rockefeller Plaza (Christie's yet again) with a sale of iconic corporate items plus bunnies. Because I equate an auction house with a museum I was glad they didn't have panty-free dancers like the ones at Playboy's recent 50th anniversary party at the armory.

Other holiday party notes:

TELL IT LIKE IT IS, PALOMA: Tiffany & Company had a benefit debut of Paloma Picasso's new jewelry for Save Venice. I've long been a fan of this charity's learned donor newsletters. Its explication of the Teatro la Fenice renovation surpassed The New York Times' with a similar word count. Tying charities and sponsors together can sometimes be clumsy, but this invite promised and delivered Paloma and Tiffany honcho John Loring recounting their introduction at the palazzo of Peggy Guggenheim (where else would they meet?). The lesson? Be specific on the invitation if there's a meaningful reason for a business entity to support a charitable endeavor, and the whole undertaking feels more natural.

P.S. It helps to have Paloma, who looks older, a bit, than those kooky red-glove ads we all remember. She greeted guests, shook hands, talked warmly, and lived up to the name.

LONG AND SKINNY IS IN, AGAIN: The annual holiday benefit dinner for AIDS Community Research Initiative of America (Acria) is always a chic and classy affair. This year the tables were long—maybe a hundred people per—yet cozy. You can get less-than-standard 36-inch tables?ask your caterer or rental vendor.

PLAY THAT FUNKY MUSIC BRIT-BOY: A new showroom opened up in the D&D Annex called Andrew Martin. It's a British fabric house with furnishings (surprise) but what's new here is that it is open to both the trade and consumers—I believe the first of its kind in the D&D. Robbins Wolfe, the A-list caterer, did a good job (although I wish they'd lose the silly word "Eventeurs" from their business cards) for sponsor House & Garden but the highlight was a big African-calypso-steel drum band that made this so unlike most of the decorating events I go to.

MOTH, REVEAL THYSELF: I'm sick for missing the third annual gala of the Moth. It was a storytelling contest with Orchid Thief author Susan Orlean validating the gathering's literary integrity. The email explained the rules better than the printed invite, but either way I'm dying to know. Can somebody let me know what went down? Email me at [email protected].

Posted 12.17.03

Columnist Ted Kruckel is an experienced and opinionated former event and PR pro who ran events for 20 years for high-profile clients like Vanity Fair, Elle Decor, Christian Dior and Carolina Herrera. He shuttered his firm, Ted Inc., earlier this year. You can email him at [email protected].

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