Alexandre Arrechea. "Mississippi Bucket," 2008. Lithograph print. Courtesy of the artist and Magnan Metz Gallery, New York (Courtesy of Alexandre Arrechea and Magnan Metz Gallery, New York)

Update, March 27: This article went to print before the online portion of the Habitat for Humanity "Art for Humanity" auction ended. Seventeen of the 55 pieces have been sold online. The remainder will be available for auction at Habitat for Humanity's "Art for Humanity" event Thursday, March 29th. Artnet will re-list unsold pieces beginning on April 21st.

Washington art collectors hoping to bid on a photo of William Wegman’s Weimaraners at a live charity auction will be disappointed. A $400 opening bid online ensured the piece wouldn’t be available for live bidding.

On Thursday,Habitat for Humanity of Washington, D.C. will hold its first Art for Humanity auction, a contemporary art auction and cocktail reception at Woolly Mammoth Theater to raise funds to build houses for low-
income families in Washington. There will surely be good wine and great jazz. The usual philanthropists will appear in their finery. But most of the art will have been snatched up in an online auction that ended last week.

Two twists — or rather, modernized fundraising tactics — make the event more strategic than the standard charity gala and attracted a slew of prominent international artists who have no connection to the Washington community. Artnet Auctions , an Internet auction site for the international art market, opened up the fundraiser to more than 16,000 bidders from around the world, selling works by 47 local and international artists to benefit the Washington charity. William Wegman , a photographer known for his portraits of Weimaraner dogs, and Do-Ho Suh, a Korean sculptor recently profiled on the PBS educational series “Art 21,” are among the renowned artists who have donated works. New York-based Livet Reichard Co., an arts management firm that specializes in arts and nonprofit fundraising, recruited these high-profile artists outside Washington to participate.

But in a digital twist, gala-goers will not get the first look at the works. The online auction started two weeks before the cocktail reception and ended March 22, before the pieces were delivered to Woolly Mammoth Theatre for viewing. Adding that component meant attendees had to compete with art aficionados online, where bidding wars are often fought in bathrobes rather than ball gowns. With low starting bids, works by the most famous artists attracted interest. Only works that did not sell will be auctioned at the upcoming event.

Rosetta DeBerardinis. ‘Empty Nesters,’ 2011. Ink and crayon on paper, courtesy of the artist. (Courtesy Rosetta DeBerardinis)

“We had seen a lot of successful art events like this done in other cities,” said Heather Phibbs, communications director for Habitat for Humanity of Washington, D.C. “Our interest in working with Artnet was so that we could have a wider audience.”

But did Habitat expect most of the art to sell online before the event?

“No, we didn’t realize that would happen until about two weeks ago,” Phibbs said.

One would think holding a virtual auction in such a public venue would decrease the turnout at the reception. Why buy the dress or the $150 ticket to bid on the leftovers? But that’s where the second twist provided further buzz: Habitat will honor Peggy Cooper Cafritz, the local benefactor and arts patron, for her decades of contributions to local and minority artists. As the founder of the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, her connections to many local artists helped garner interest among patrons and artists alike.

“It got to me,” Cafritz said. “To see so many big names, and the people I know giving to Habitat . . . it has really touched me.”

Cafritz says she’s hopeful that their online fundraising strategy will work. “It’s very clever if they do it right,” she said. “And this isn’t going to sound grammatically beautiful, but we need more different stuff in Washington. This city needs to do more things first.”

The novelty of the event, and Cafritz’s support, appealed to local and national artists.

“Peggy Cooper Cafritz reached out to me and encouraged me to participate,” said Hank Willis Thomas, a New York-based photo conceptual artist who attended Duke Ellington School for the Arts. He met Cafritz over 20 years ago while he was a student and has stayed in touch with her, counting her as a patron and friend. “She has spent a huge portion of her life donating to a variety of causes, and I feel obligated to do my part, too,” he added.

The tragic irony of Cafritz helping Habitat for Humanity — after a fire ravaged Cafritz’s $5.2 million mansion on Chain Bridge Road in July 2009 — isn’t lost on the event’s organizers or artists who’ve donated. Her stately home housed a priceless collection of 300 sculptures and paintings by African and African American artists, which Thomas said she intended to donate to a museum. Oprah’s “O” Magazine profiled her house only a few weeks before the fire, calling the house “alive and filled with meaning.”

“I try not to think about it,” Cafritz said. “It is still such an overpowering misery in my life. I mean, when I look back and see the pictures . . . ” she paused. “It’s so clear there was no need for the fire. I’m just categorizing [Art for Humanity] as a good thing to do. I don’t relate it to the fire. I would have done it anyway.”

In October 2010, Cafritz sued D.C. Water for $30 million, claiming that inadequate water pressure prevented the Fire Department from extinguishing the fire. The case is still open, with a status hearing scheduled for this week.

Like Cafritz, Habitat isn’t dwelling on the tragedy and the massive loss the community felt when she lost her private collection. Phibbs says Habitat is honoring Cafritz for her decades of work in the arts community.

“There’s a definite connection between what Habitat does giving access to housing and what others in the community do to give access to arts and education among lower-income populations.” Phibbs said. “Peggy has spent a career doing this, starting the Duke Ellington School, and opened up kids’ worlds, in a way. What she’s done speaks to the same mission.”

Habitat acknowledges the practical reasons for both a high-profile honoree and an online auction with no geographical boundaries: Art auctions raise money, and putting the auction online allows for a smorgasbord of art enthusiasts around the globe to contribute to a local cause — one, admittedly, many may not care about.

“These events are a win-win for bidders,” said Gracie Mansion, a senior specialist in contemporary art at Artnet. “The artists donate the works and allow the charity to set a low starting bid. It’s an incentive for people to get a well-priced work and support a cause.”

Mansion expects that most of the works will sell for the estimated values. “Our bidders are savvy. They wait until the last minute to bid.”

But making a local charity auction appealing to a global audience is no small task. To gain participants, Habitat and Artnet enlisted curators Ann Livet and Lora Evinger of Livet Reichard in New York to find international contemporary artists willing to participate in the auction.

“At first we thought it would be particularly challenging to get the New York artists involved with D.C. Habitat,” said Evinger, project manager at Livet Reichard. “But we solicited artists through two different angles . . . Peggy Cooper Cafritz collects widely, and quite a few of the artists have worked with her. We also asked, more generally, international artists that are just really great.”

Local artists, too, are eager to participate. Adah Rose Bitterbaum, owner of Adah Rose Gallery in Kensington, donated six pieces after artists “jumped at the chance to be included in an auction for such a wonderful organization.”

For a new fundraiser, it’s an astonishing list of contributors, one that Phibbs admits Habitat may have trouble re-creating in consecutive years.

“We do worry about next year,” Phibbs said. “If we don’t have Peggy’s name on the invitation, are we going to get the same results?”

Cafritz hopes to stay involved with the charity. “Arts and homes go together, absolutely,” she said. “The things we see everyday have a great effect on us. I hope to be working on that in the future . . . to make good art and visuals available to people.”

Habitat’s art auction comes at a time when both up-and-coming artists and nonprofits are struggling to find patrons in the post-recession world. Charitable giving is still down since 2007 and, while there were slight improvements in 2011, it is not predicted to reach pre-recession levels this year.

Yet Habitat hopes the auction will net $100,000, and by offering 47 works to bidders across the globe, it remains a realistic goal.

“Charity dinners might have 200 people attending, but we have 16,000 people,” Mansion said. “There are many, many more people who can potentially raise more money for the charity. It’s a model for the future.”

Staff researcher Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.

Art for Humanity cocktail reception and auction

Woolly Mammoth Theatre, 641 D Street NW, Washington, D.C. Reception, 6:30 p.m. Thursday; live art auction, 8 p.m. Tickets $150, VIP $350.