The Discreet Charm of the Silent Auction

Forget bake sales. Put the kibosh on the carwash. Sit out the walk-a-thon. The hills are alive with the sound of the silent auction, Southern California's fund-raiser of choice. If you belong to a church, synagogue or hospital board, or you have a child in school, you will probably encounter this curious custom.

At a silent auction, there's no professional auctioneer to inflame the proceedings with a litany of "Do I hear five?. Ten?" Instead, donated items are listed in a catalog, and tables display bid sheets listing the item, its (always inflated) value, and spaces for bidders' names and offers. It's easy to spot hot items, because bidders do "the hover" around a coveted prize's sheet to prevent ante-upping.

These affairs don't always live up to their "silent" reputation. Nothing livens up the party and rewards the hours of work quite like an unseemly tussle between two lawyers over a $50 gift certificate that's escalated to $275. Indeed, normally rational people lose their minds over silent auctions. I read the following--and I'm not making this up--in an auction catalog: "With all due apologies, the committee forgot to thank Anonymous. Thank you, Anonymous, for all your work and forgive us for not recognizing you sooner." Why would any organization bother with such nonsense? Easy. Silent auctions are nearly as labor-intensive as engraving your grocery list on a grain of rice.

When the worthy organization serves a wealthy membership, you can count on bids for big-ticket items soaring into the stratosphere. We're talking Cartier jewelry, Versace china, cruises to the Bahamas, prime Laker seats and, if there are Hollywood connections, pricy opportunities for carefully monitored interactions with celebrities (milk shakes at the same counter with the Olsen twins, anyone?).

What if your laudable group doesn't cater to the rich and famous? Well, you can have an auction with no connections, but in L.A., that might be depressing. Your best hope is "presentation." Presentation generates buzz. Presentation makes the items go like hot cakes. And at an auction, presentation means one thing: baskets.

Big theme baskets, stuffed with donated goodies, wrapped in cellophane and accented with colorful ribbons. Their contents may be worth $10, but thanks to presentation, they'll bring in $75 to $200. (Don't forget to tie raffia under the ribbons. Raffia is not pasta. This humble fiber is underwear for the well-dressed basket.) There are people who create these gift baskets for a living, people who combine the skills of artist and engineer. It's almost a form of alchemy, sorting through donated odds and ends (items that really belong in a garage sale) and transforming them into "must-have" prizes.

Theme baskets often resemble those standardized intelligence tests where you're asked to figure out how four different items are related. In a well-conceived basket, those 200 donated pairs of pierced earrings featuring the Israeli flag become, "The Perfect Bar/Bat Mitzvah Gift Basket for the teenager in that difficult Zionist-punk-gothic phase." Opening bid: $18. A box of spaghetti, a bottle of wine, a jar of tomato sauce and a red-checked napkin? The "Mama Mia" goodie basket. Opening bid: $30. A porcelain cup, a canister of tea, a doily and a Jane Austen novel? It's the "Sunday Afternoon in the Country" basket. Opening bid: $40. What about a pair of stiletto heels, a skateboard, a hairbrush and bug repellent? That's the "Spring Break" basket, the perfect gift for a vivacious college student. Opening bid: $60.

In the end, whether your catalog reads like Vanity Fair or the PennySaver, there is a silent auction for every demographic. Fortunately for do-gooders, people will buy anything wrapped in cellophane.

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