It was an evening with art and Art.
"There isn't anybody I won't take money from," said humor columnist Art Buchwald, drink in hand, as he bounded down the Corcoran Gallery of Art's marble stairs after a cocktail reception in the gallery's Tapestry Room Saturday night. There the gallery board members and guests primed for the Fifth Annual Corcoran Art Auction to benefit the Corcoran School of Art.
Buchwald was speaking of his voluntary role as guest auctioneer at a "Saturday Night A-Live" benefit auction that netted more than $30,000 at the live auction alone for the school's scholarship fund.
Summery weather did little to deter the 300 or so guests from taking up the challenge to dress formally after receiving an invitation that advised "black tie or black beret."
"We wanted to upgrade the art and the evening," said benefit chairman Lori Coughlin of an affair that has seen its share of different styles -- formal, informal, affordable, not so affordable -- come and go. One thing was clear -- black ties outnumbered black berets hands down.
Auctioneers Buchwald and Michael Grogan of Sotheby's, along with Corcoran board President David Lloyd Kreeger and his wife Carmen, regaled each other with their favorite auction stories upstairs before the buffet dinner in the gallery rotunda. The dinner consisted of brightly colored shopping bags filled with beef tenderloin, crepe coronets, pencil asparagus and other delectable edibles. Guests picked up their bag dinners, then plopped themselves down at tables, picnic-style, to eat and swap bidding strategems on the silent auction items that were displayed in two rooms on the second floor.
As Corcoran Gallery Director Michael Botwinick put it, "This has always been a pleasant evening." But it was an evening that required an alert mind and willingness to move from silent auction to dinner to live auction and then at the propitious moment back up to the silent auction for some quick appraisals and more bidding.
Some of the guests were enjoying their food so much they forgot about the next event, the live auction. Ceiling lights above the diners flickered as a signal that the auction was beginning. Five minutes went by; no one got up. Lights flickered again, and a few diners departed for the auction. Finally master of ceremonies Buchwald was forced to take action.
"If you want to go home, you'll have to get in there," he boomed over the crowd.
Get in there they did. An untitled print by the late Gene Davis went for $500, as did a 1975 collage on paper by Sam Gilliam. A personalized tour of the Corcoran by Botwinick, with champagne and hors d'oeuvres for 20, sold for $1,000, and a pretheater dinner for six at Maison Blanche with use of the presidential box at the National Theatre for "La Cage aux Folles" went for $600 after some slow moments.
"I've eaten at Maison Blanche for $600," prodded Buchwald. "You're getting theater too."
A $3,500 Bill Blass dress didn't do as well, and was withdrawn from the auction.
Upstairs, the silent auction offered photographs, sculpture, collage and paintings. Patrice Mollela's 1984 assemblage, "Tap Desire," a pair of glitter-spangled pumps on a white pedestal, stood very near an impressionistic oil, "Bologne sur Mer" by Anne Peltier.
The auction didn't end with the last bid, though. It ended with Botwinick leading the crowd in a chorus of "Happy Birthday" to board member Lori Coughlin's husband, Tim Coughlin, newly named president of Riggs Bank, out celebrating his birthday for art's sake.