Philanthropy | For Goodness’ Sake

The fund-raising power of David Beckham’s boots

Charity auctions are still raising substantial sums

The fund-raising power of David Beckham’s boots

Image: David Humphries @ Monster

November 29 2009
Claire Wrathall

When it comes to acquiring things that money can’t usually buy, there is nothing like a charity fundraiser. Always wanted a Fiat 500 customised by Damien Hirst? You needed one of the five winning raffle tickets – £5,000 apiece – at the £10,000-a-plate dinner and auction held in aid of Absolute Return for Kids, hedge-fund manager and founding chairman of Ark Arpad Busson’s charity last June. In keeping with the straitened times, the venue – the old Eurostar terminal at Waterloo – was low-key. Not so the auction lots, nor the sums they realised. One of the 800 guests bid £300,000 for a holiday on the Getty family superyacht Talitha G. Another paid £300,000 for a week on Richard Branson’s private Necker Island in the Caribbean. In all, more than £15m was raised.

Charity auctions may not all have been “quite as bouncy as they were in the past”, says Hugh Edmeades, international director of auctioneering at Christie’s, who has presided over more than 300 fundraisers in the past decade, realising nearly £40m. But as long as the donated lots are desirable, auctions remain an effective way to raise money. At Nelson Mandela’s 90th Birthday Gala last year, for instance, he achieved £4.3m from just eight lots.

Next weekend Edmeades will be wielding the gavel at an annual dinner at Zuma, the London Japanese restaurant, in aid of the Savitri Waney Charitable Trust, which establishes health and educational services in rural India. This time last year, that one auction raised £235,000 – 12 per cent more than the £210,000 a whole year’s fundraising had achieved the previous year. Two days later he’ll be in Moscow raising funds for Operation Smile (which repairs children’s facial deformities). It won’t be the first time he’s run an auction in Russia. Last year he raised €5m from 13 donated lots at supermodel-philanthropist Natalia Vodianova’s Love Ball in aid of her children’s charity, the Naked Heart Foundation. Among them were a Valentino couture wedding dress (€600,000), a portfolio of photographs by Mario Testino (€450,000) and a Damien Hirst painting (€1.2m).

“The joy of these auctions is that every one is so different,” he says. “I never know what to expect. At Christie’s, people come because they want to buy so I have a captive audience. At charity dinners people have paid a lot for their places and probably been stung for a couple of raffle tickets, so when it comes to the auction a large proportion think they’ve done their giving for the evening. The test is finding the 10 to 15 people in the room who want to carry on.”

Of course, it’s altruism that prompts him to volunteer his time, but he finds it both “very gratifying” and a way of honing his skills: “You have to be much more persuasive when trying to flog the umpteenth pair of David Beckham’s boots.” And mostly it’s generosity that prompts bidders to bid, for the value of lots can vary wildly. That a guest at the Love Ball paid €200,000 for an invitation to the Oscars, preceded by a picnic at Diane von Furstenburg and Barry Diller’s Beverly Hills home, may not seem surprising. But Edmeades has also raised £40,000 for MediCinema – a charity that installs screening rooms in hospitals so that patients can watch movies on a big screen – by auctioning signed celebrity lipstick prints.