By Chris Quilter
In my parents’ heyday, the social whirl revolved around throwing and going to cocktail parties. Suddenly, or at least when my back was turned, people packed away their fondue pots, switched to wine, and started throwing and going to fundraisers. With all due respect to bake sales, pancake breakfasts, and car washes, the kind of fundraiser I mean involves a dressy crowd, spiffy setting, catered food, donated wine, noninvasive music, and — always, always — a silent auction.
I had never heard of silent auctions until the mid-1990s when I went to work at AIDS Services Foundation as staff wordsmith. ASF was launching a new event to complement the phenomenal “Big Splash!” and I was drafted into writing auction item descriptions for the program. I found I had a facility for deeply purple prose about things like exotic sun-drenched sand and sea adventures.
My experience at ASF left me conflicted. Silent auctions are a fundraising staple because they give us something to do and make tons of money for causes we care about. Still, given the work involved, I’m convinced there is a special place in Hell for the person who invented the silent auction.
This belief was recently reinforced when I added a drop of testosterone to the silent auction committee for the Legacy Ball, the annual benefit for the Susi Q. The scope of begging, cajoling, collecting, storing, transporting, arranging, describing, and displaying — engaged in willingly by my amazingly good-natured colleagues — was staggering. My task was to write lurid copy for the Legacy Wine Collection (“flamboyant fruit flavors with a smidgen of smoky oak”). I also stumbled on the Holy Grail of silent auctions: the easy-as-pie item that’s sure to sell for a small fortune.
Well, almost. It turned out that a friend on the committee calls Warren Buffet “Warren.” Given that “Eat Lunch with Warren Buffet” has fetched as much as $3.5 million, I proposed what I thought was a compellingly modest variation: “Eat Warren Buffet’s Lunch.” Picture a picnic basket containing a bologna-and-cheese on Wonder Bread, side of potato salad, a Dr. Pepper, and an autographed copy of “Warren Buffett Speaks,” Unfortunately, my friend kept forgetting to make the ask.
From now on, I’m sticking to what I know best about silent auctions: spending and scoring. I’ve done pretty well so far: a silver leaf French-provincial mirror that either goes with nothing or adds to the eclectic charm of my home, a limited-edition photograph of a trailer parked in the driveway of a 1950s tract home, some well-crafted pottery, and much, much more.
My one dud was the painting I bought for a song after it had been inexplicably overlooked by the crowd. The next morning, I could see that my last glass of wine had been a mistake. I asked my friend Donn the Demon Decorator where I might hang it. “In the furnace room,” he suggested. “Facing in.”
Laguna resident Chris Quilter wrote this column in Santa Fe, having made the winning bid on a lovely home with a killer view.