Organizers of the "Party Animals" street art project are dealing with one big hangover. The D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities acknowledged that it outbid some would-be purchasers during its online auction in a last-minute effort to keep some of the popular donkey and elephant sculptures.
The commission, which secretly topped various offers with its own bids, wound up with nine of the 153 full-size sculptures it auctioned online this fall. The nine sculptures -- including Buffalo Soldier, Metrophant, Panoramic Pachyderm and Street Corner Harmony -- "sold" for prices ranging from $2,600 to $6,050, for a total of $39,200.
But the commission, which this week removed the nine sculptures from the auction results listed on its Web site, never actually paid for the artwork.
The idea, according to Anthony Gittens, executive director of the arts commission, was to make sure that there were enough sculptures "to maintain the legacy of the program" by displaying certain pieces around the city. The painted statues, the city's largest public arts initiative, graced downtown streets and neighborhoods over the summer.
"We selected some to keep to maintain a legacy and to put in places that might normally not be able to participate in the auction," Gittens said. "The way to do this was for the arts commission to place a bid. . . . The winning bids were our bids."
He said the commission "tracked the auction" in late October and early November and put "proxy bids" on the sculptures it wanted to keep. "If at any point we felt the [competing] bids were going to be significant, we would have pulled out," he said.
The auction maneuverings came to light after the commission was asked to provide a list of the sculptures sold online, their sales price and who bought them. The list obtained by The Washington Post showed that the arts panel had retained ownership of certain statues.
Sales of the popular Party Animals and related merchandise grossed about $1.2 million, with net proceeds earmarked for artist grants and the commission's arts education programs. A live auction garnered more than $350,000, with one sculpture selling for the top price of $25,000. The online auction netted nearly $576,000, including $12,500 for a single elephant statue.
Gittens said the online sales figure does not include the $39,200 the commission bid for certain sculptures.
Virginia Weschler, executive vice president of the Adam A. Weschler & Sons auction house in the District, said charity auctions "are always goofy, but these are people who didn't understand the ramifications" of what they did. "They should never have offered them if they had no intention of selling them," she said.
In the commercial world, Weschler said, "this would be an act of fraud." But charity auctions, she said, "fall outside the law" because they are not licensed. Still, "it's terribly unfair, and morally and ethically wrong. . . . They've probably ruined their chances of ever doing a similar fundraiser."
Gittens, who said it was his idea to place the bogus bids, said the commission did not do anything wrong or illegal.
"It's not something we were keeping a secret," he said. "It was a public auction, and we were able to make available what we made available. . . . We owned them until there was a bill of sale."
Dorothy McSweeny, the commission's chairman, was a bit more apologetic.
"It was not a good decision. We should have pulled them earlier," she said.
The commission, she explained, had not realized what "an enormous success" the street art project would be. There was initial talk about keeping any unsold sculptures for display in the city. Then the bids started coming in, and the online activity so overwhelmed the Web site that the auction was extended.
"We're going to have an audit," she said. "Our intentions were good. We were worried [the sculptures] were slipping away from us, and we wanted the public to still be able to enjoy them."
The online activity was so hectic during the last three days of the auction, McSweeny said yesterday, that "we're really not sure what happened." The commission's decision to make its own bids "was very spontaneous. These were some of the lower [priced] ones. There was no attempt to hide anything."
The commission, she added, had "hundreds of requests" from people who wanted the sculptures, including requests to donate them to charities.
"In this case, the arts program was the charity, and we told them that," she said.
As for those who were outbid by the commission, McSweeny said there were many other choices.
"If they got deterred on those few, they could go to 180 others," she said.
McSweeny said she did not know beforehand that nine sculptures offered online were getting bogus bids via the commission. But she agreed with Gittens that the amount of money the commission lost by not selling them was insignificant compared with the success of the program and the chance to put more sculptures on public view, including placing them with groups that might not be able to afford them.
"It's the mission of the arts commission to serve residents who do not have the wherewithal to participate in the auction," Gittens said.
In addition to keeping nine of the Party Animals offered online, the arts panel withheld six other sculptures from the auction.
Of the 15 sculptures it retained, four will go to the new D.C. convention center, two will go to the District's John A. Wilson Building, and two will be kept at the commission's office, the arts panel said. The remaining seven are being considered for placement at an early childhood education center, a charter school and four other sites yet to be determined, though one would probably be in Anacostia.
Gittens said the commission put in bids for the nine sculptures on behalf of the convention center as well as groups that had requested them.
"We assumed the cost of that," he said. Asked whether that meant the commission would be paying the sales prices listed on its Web site, he said: "I don't know how we would pay ourselves for them. We already own them."
The commission, however, does expect to be reimbursed for the four Party Animals it reserved for the new convention center. It so happens that the arts panel is also overseeing a $4 million public arts program for the center, and Gittens said the commission "is in negotiations" over how much the center will pay for the sculptures.
Tony Robinson, spokesman for the Washington Convention Center Authority, said that the goal is to have 50 percent of the art come from D.C. artists and that the Party Animals will be a unique component of that.
"We'll be paying whatever the commission tells us we owe," he said.