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To the bidder left holding the bag. Tips for auctions of all kinds.

Photo: Lovis Dengler Osternik

The other night, I attended a big-deal gala whose cocktail party featured a silent auction. The program and an announcer stated that it would close at 9 p.m. A few bidders wandered by just before then to check on their items. We’ve all done this: bid on an auction item, then stepped back and watched like a hawk. 

The hour came and went and the bid sheets remained on the table. One enterprising (interloping?) guest had the room to himself for a few minutes, during which he quickly and wisely scoped out the best five or so values and signed his name.

At the redemption table, a number of bidders were outraged. He cheated! He bid after 9 p.m.! Despite their lamentations, however, Johnny-come-lastly made off with his items.

It started a lively discussion. It was my initial position that since the organizers hadn’t promptly pulled the sheets, he was in his rights. But what about fair play? The rule of law? Conversely, if the money is for charity, why should anyone complain?

The next day during the morning-after play-by-plays (the best part of any event, right?), we went through all the arguments again—sober this time—and still reached no consensus.

Now this is an area where I consider myself knowledgeable. As an organizer, donor, buyer, and even auctioneer, I don’t think I’m exaggerating by saying that I’ve done hundreds of auctions. My whole house is furnished with auction items.

I’ve worked on auctions at Sotheby’s and Christie’s and lots of lesser places with auctioneers as diverse as Sharon Stone, Tracy Ullman, and Peter Jennings. I’ve auctioned off cars, a plane, and artwork of every medium.

And after thinking about it, I realized that when it comes to auctions, no matter who or where you are, all bets are off. So rather than give you a list of dos and don’ts, I’m going to tell you about a few experiences I’ve had and the lessons (I wish) I’d learned.

Nothing smaller than a bread box. Just because tickets are $500 apiece and the money is going to poor children in Africa whose mothers have AIDS, don’t assume a pair of Montblanc pens will still be in their fancy wood case at the end of the night.

Not everyone who raises a hand can or will pay.
I went to bed one night after an In Style party I worked on thinking I had dodged a bullet. The performer, Erykah Badu, had come off without a hitch despite the fact that she was filming a movie the same day and was pregnant to boot. The decor by Colin Cowie had received universal oohs and aahs, despite a 50-foot palm tree that nearly crashed earlier in the day. We had successfully rolled an advertiser’s SUV onto the stage and auctioned it off. But by the time I had called in the next day, the car buyer had already reneged. He had apparently had a few, and when he got home and told his wife, well, you can picture the rest. Luckily, Rachael Shaw Greto, In Style’s special events director, needed a car like that. She bought it and saved us major embarrassment.

Learn the house rules, then teach them to the staff. If you rent out Christie’s or Sotheby’s for a gala—and you should, they are both great spaces that deliver on the class and prestige front—know they have very strict rules. At Sotheby’s for a photography auction, we were told that we could not assign a value to any item. To play it safe, we hired Sotheby’s vice chairman Jamie Niven. But he went ahead anyway and said that a certain photo was worth $20,000, and the next day the buyer called Sotheby’s looking for vetting paperwork (which they didn’t have, since it wasn’t their auction). Before you know it, we were asked to give a refund. Ouch. There goes your bonus.

One of a kind? Sure, until two people have the money.
I was a guest and a sponsor at an auction for Bay Street Theatre when, like a fool, I started bidding on a celebrity prize: Julie Andrews (whose daughter Emma Walton is the theater’s co-founder) would record the outgoing message on your answering machine. How cool to have Mary Poppins saying hello! But as the bidding got higher, I bowed out at $10,000. But Rosie O’Donnell was the auctioneer, and she uses a “take no prisoners” approach. Suddenly, Julie Andrews is sitting on my lap and offering to make a second recording for me, the lucky loser. Oh, and I never got the tape.

Speaking of take no prisoners. Say what you want about Sharon Stone, but there is no dispute that she is the most aggressive and successful celebrity auctioneer, bar none. This year at the Watermill Center benefit, where the auctions raised $1.7 million, she started the session by saying, “If you talk or move or breathe, it’s a bid.” Years ago, at an event for her sister’s charity, we held an auction at Smashbox Studios. It was a crazy night. Matt Le Blanc donated a sports car. Sharon donated two outfits from Casino, which Bernard Lafferty, while busy being accused of murdering Doris Duke, bought for $10,000 each and then invited us all back to Duke’s house for a swim. It was a big success but for one thing—by the time the auction was winding down, there was still no Sharon Stone. At the last minute her limo arrived, and when I told her she was too late, she looked at me like I was an idiot and told me to turn the microphone back on and to get her two $100 bills. She got up on stage, shouting, swearing, and charming the crowd. After kissing and signing the two greenbacks, she sold the first for $5,000 and the second for $10,000, in about 60 seconds. Then she kissed me on the lips and got back in the car. It was love.

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