"Going . . . going . . . gone. Twelve days in June at a 200-year-old Welsh cottage sold for $900 to Ruth Sigler and George Knapp." With the bang of a gavel, this couple has simultaneously purchased a summer vacation and made a hefty donation to their children's nursery school, the Chevy Chase Baptist Church Children's Center.
Similar scenes will take place in the Washington area over the next few months as the charity auction season hits its peak. The events range from small to major extravaganzas, such as the annual auction by Sidwell Friends School. Now in its 14th year, the April event attracts more than a thousand people each spring to the Sheraton Washington ballroom, where about 1,500 items -- from homemade dinners and Redskins tickets to a three-day Greek island cruise -- go on the block.
Last year's affair netted $123,000, according to auction director Eloise Furber, who works full time on the auction two-thirds of the year, assisted by a 107-person auction board divided into 19 committees.
While many groups stage an auction as an annual fundraiser, some see it as a special one-time event. Washington Independent Writers, an organization of nearly 2,000 area free-lance writers, is planning an auction at the National Press Club as part of its 10th anniversary celebration in April. With author Kitty Kelly and radio personality Larry King as auctioneers, WIW plans to sell off such treasures of the literary world as a container of Austin Kiplinger's prize bat manure and an autographed copy of C. Fred's Story: A Dog's Life, the autobiography of Vice President George Bush's dog.
"Any charity with a core of volunteers to do the work can pull off an auction," claims professional auctioneer and consultant Timothy Duggan of Lake Zurich, Ill. He is paid ($1,250 flat fee for each) to run about 70 auctions a year at schools, hospitals, zoos, museums, operas; one he manages for a Chicago area private high school clears more than $500,000.
People like auctions, says Duggan, because "they get something for their money. They think in terms of a donation, but get goods and services, too."
One person who is only too well aware of the growing popularity of auctions is columnist Art Buchwald: He receives about two or three requests daily for donations to various auctions. "I even get computer letters," he says. "Everyone wants something personal."
Buchwald may send charities an original draft of one of his columns, or possibly work someone's name into a column. He's also been known to put up himself for lunch, but he's trying to cut back. "I could have lunch every day with strangers. I enjoy doing it, but it's a time problem. The most I ever went for was $1,100. I was the auctioneer and I wasn't going to go cheap."
Buchwald also serves frequently as an auctioneer. "I have the good fortune of being able to insult people and humiliate them without getting them mad," he says. "If people like you, then they'll bid."
A festive atmosphere, experts agree, is important in generating high bidding. "If you get five or six people tanked up, you can have a successful auction," observes Buchwald, adding that a few hot bidders are more important than "two or 300 well-behaved people."
An auction works when "people catch auction fever," says Duggan. "They get caught up in the bidding. Sometimes it's a macho matter."
The three key elements of a successful auction, according to Duggan: quality goods, an audience that can afford to buy them and a professional auctioneer. "You need an auctioneer who can move things along at a fast pace. If people get bored, they'll get up and leave."
Although Duggan may sell more than 100 items in a three-hour auction, most fundraisers limit the "live" auction to less than 50 items. Others (typically, about 100) are put in a "silent auction," usually before the dinner and live auction begin. (In a silent auction, bids are submitted on paper, with a specified increment for each bid.The winner is the last person to write a bid before the bidding period closes.)
"Solicitors should plan on only having a live auction and ask only for live auction quality items," advises Duggan. When less expensive things come in, "you have the silent auction by default."
For some groups, a small number of items -- priced high -- can be the ticket in fund-raising. Only eight items, for example, were auctioned off live at last year's fundraiser for the Barker Foundation adoption agency. Combined with a big silent auction, the group cleared $65,000.
Providing high quality goods and items people can't buy in stores, say the experts, can make the difference between an auction that raises a few thousand dollars and one that moves into six figures. "We go for the 'priceless' things that people can't get anywhere else," says Janit Silverman of Rockville, cochair of the Green Acres School auction this month. Last year's event raised $36,000.
Among items to be offered: a day with sportscaster Glenn Brenner, a football autographed by Redskins players and a quilt handmade by 28 people connected with the school.
The annual Martha's Vineyard auction offers such fantasies as a sailboat ride with Walter Cronkite. One of the most expensive items ever sold by auctioneer Buchwald was former president Gerald Ford's golf putter, which went for $1,400.
Duggan once auctioned off a dinner with a Supreme Court justice. "Every lawyer in the room wanted it. It went for $4,000."
Duggan's top price, he says, went for a handmade quilt at a St. Louis school. "It had the names of every member of the senior class embroidered on it. I started it at $100, but we got $17,000."
After the celebrity and one-of-a-kind items, vacation homes and trips are big sellers. Weekend packages in New York, trips to the Caribbean and California, ski packages, even European vacations appear on many auction lists.
In addition to the Welsh cottage, Chevy Chase Baptist Church Children's Center last year sold a week's stay at a summer home on Lake George in the Adirondacks, and a vacation at a home on the coast of Maine. A sleeper at Sidwell's auction last year was a vacation package -- including air fare, accommodations and tours -- in Flint, Mich. Because of the lively bidding it generated -- several bidders wanted to visit family members there -- the committee is offering a similar package to Minneapolis this year.
Special services for families -- such as a week of prepared lunchbox lunches, babysitting or tennis lessons -- also are well received at school auctions.
Any successful auction requires a hard core of dedicated workers to put it all together. "It takes four to six months to organize a large auction," says Duggan. "If you start sooner, people waste time; if you start later, there's too much pressure."
"I keep expecting people to feel 'auctioned out,' " says Sidwell's Furber. "We may lose a few donors each year, but our auction has a certain momentum."
Because of the proliferation of auctions here and elsewhere, some restaurants and hotels are turning down requests for auction donations. "You have to come up with new ideas, new places," says Silverman.
But you can't lose money with an auction unless you cancel at the last moment, maintains Duggan. "The worst auction I ever ran, the organizers did everything wrong. But still, they made $19,000."