Where the Auction Is

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Something about being all dressed up at a fancy dinner with a glass of bubbly in hand just makes you want to drop a wad of dough. Charitable organizations know this. So every year, often about now, they gear up for the annual fund-raiser. This grand affair frequently includes a silent auction, where spending and socializing go together like a black tie and cummerbund. The well-meaning and well-heeled get caught up in the spirit, then dash off checks faster than you can say "deductible."

With those charitable feelings afloat, guests one-up one another on bid sheets that may win them a vacation getaway, tickets to a sporting event, celebrity memorabilia, opportunities of a lifetime, pamper baskets and handmade quilts.

"What moves is extravagance of any kind," says auction grande dame Sarah Piehl, who after 20 years of coordinating auctions for such venerable groups as the John Wayne Cancer Institute in Santa Monica, University Synagogue in Brentwood and the Village School in Pacific Palisades, figures she's raised several million dollars. "The staples of any auction are the trips and restaurants. That's a phenomenon of L.A. People pay near value and figure they'll enjoy themselves and write it off."

Brushes with fame are other hot sellers. Recently, at various fund-raisers throughout Los Angeles, a "Seinfeld" walk-on brought $1,200, a walk-on for NBC's "Frasier" drew $2,200, and scrubs worn on "ER" and signed by the cast netted $900. "Baywatch" hunk David Hasselhoff's swim trunks (aptly stuffed for display purposes) fetched more than $500 and a leather jacket Sylvester Stallone sported in a film drew $2,000.

Madonna's tour bustier got a mere $400.

"The function's crowd was too old for it," said Piehl, who says audience is everything. For example, at one exclusive Westside school where many celebrities send their kids, she said, "Hollywood never sells, no matter who signed it."

Access also has a price. Kathy Tavoularis, who manages silent auctions for the Republican Party of Orange County, says lunches with elected officials are especially popular. And for those who want to chat and catch waves, Huntington Beach Congressman Dana Rohrabacher donates a surfing lesson, which last year sold for $500.

Sentiment also sells. At the Buckley School, in Sherman Oaks, classes in the lower school often make a quilt to auction at the annual school fair, says volunteer auction Chairwoman Katie Lilliston, who's seen these easily sell in the four digits. Two years ago, a former auction coordinator recalls, two people got into a bidding war over one quilt. Usually a case such as this goes to a final sealed bid, but these two chose to decide it on the tennis court.

Besides kids' handicrafts, other school fare that sells well are a day as principal or time outside of school with a favorite teacher, says Lilliston, who recalls one parent who paid $44,000 for six students to spend a day with a teacher.

Perhaps the hottest charity auction items this year are Beanie Babies, with the Princess Diana Beanie Baby promising profits this spring. This purple creature is not a likeness of the Princess, but of her allegedly beloved childhood bear. Talis Smith, of Los Angeles, got a store in Pacific Palisades to donate two; one for the Bel Air Presbyterian PreSchool, where her children attend and where she co-chaired this year's silent auction, and the other for the Children's Bureau of Southern California, where she's an auxiliary member. "I've seen these selling on the Internet for $42,000," she says.

Lilliston bought a basket of 91 Beanie Babies (17 retired and one Princess Di) at an auction to support another cause and is re-donating the lot to Buckley's auction. She paid $5,000 for the batch and plans to place the opening bid at $500, though she might sell the Princess Beanie separately. "If the school even gets $2,500, that would be grand."

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Auctions are hot in private school fund-raising, as many parents find out. Smith and Lilliston, like others active in schools, know they're not only expected to pay to attend the event and bid in the auction, but also to contribute auction items. (One private school, whose officials requested not to be named, actually requires families upon enrollment of a child to sign a contract obligating them to "donate, solicit or underwrite" an item or service for the school's auctions.)

A request for an auction contribution often stymies even the most charitable individual. So if your French chateau doesn't happen to be available in the coming year and you don't think people would pay much for your swimwear, here are a few ideas experts say are worth soliciting.

Start with your work. If you work in entertainment, tickets, memorabilia and walk-ons are a natural. If your company sponsors a Rose Parade float, try to secure a ride. Also consider whether your company's products or services would make desirable auction fare. (Remember, glamour and indulgence sells; business-oriented stuff bombs.) Then consider your connections. Can you get theme park passes, blimp rides, beachfront condos, season tickets, a free meal for two?

Condo stays can be great, depending on destination and audience.

"The more affluent prefer a hotel to staying in someone else's home," says Piehl. But personal condos go well in church and many school events, and tickets for great seats at sporting events or concerts are always "wonderful."

Next, solicit the vendors you patronize: Beauty salons, health clubs, restaurants and boutiques often ante up gift certificates or baskets in the name of goodwill and advertising.

"If you only buy your cosmetics at the Saks Lanco^me counter, find your regular salesgirl and ask her for a basket," suggests Piehl. "Many grass-roots fund-raising opportunities are out there if you ask." Classes can also go over well for, say, yoga, gourmet cooking or kids' music lessons; computer school, not so well.

Go armed with a request form, advises Brandi Bennett, auction coordinator for My Friend's Place, a Hollywood resource for homeless teens. This is so the vendor knows you're not someone scamming free goods. Be ready to cite the demographics of your audience and how the vendor will be promoted.

"Donors want to know the demographics because fit is everything," says Piehl. "When you have an illustrious group like the folks who turn out to support the John Wayne Cancer Institute, vendors know it's a prime audience. Getting $20,000 cruises donated is no problem."

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Finally, look to your own abilities. If you've got a salable skill, hawk it. At University Synagogue, "every year our cantor donates a dinner party for 10 to 20 people, where he cooks and he's fabulous," says Piehl. Another woman offers calligraphy services. However, like many auction veterans, Piehl discourages certain services. "No one gets a doctor or dentist from an auction." (Though at a recent fund-raiser for St. Margaret's Episcopal School in San Juan Capistrano, a vasectomy was a hot auction item.) Financial and legal services she deems "bad news." Personal trainers and interior designers are "iffy," though others claim they sell well depending on the professional's reputation.

When seeking auction goods, other no-nos include old stuff lying around your home.

"Take it to the Salvation Army," says one spokesperson for Planned Parenthood. That goes for items that could be valuable, like old art, which is hard to price without hurting the donor's feelings. Other slow movers are TV scripts and signed pictures of actors. But some autographed memorabilia pull very well depending on the celebrity. Piehl has seen a Magic Johnson autographed basketball go for $2,000.

If you're still stumped, ask your auction coordinator for a suggestion.

"Tops on my wish list is a grave site," says Piehl. "Everybody needs one."

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