By  on November 19, 2007

Private school auctions are the monied set’s newest playing field for one-upmanship.

A well-coiffed woman adjusts her glittery Carolina Herrera gown. Taking a deep breath, she exits her Town Car and steps onto a red carpet. Behind metal barricades, throngs of paparazzi call her name. Tonight, she is determined not to go home empty-handed. She’s got her eye on the prize.

But the prize is no shiny statuette, and its winner needn’t deliver an acceptance speech. In fact, the woman is itching to score a quilt made by four-year-olds.

This was the scene last spring at the benefit of a tony Manhattan private school. In accordance with the evening’s Hollywood theme, organizers rolled out a red carpet and hired teenagers to pose as photographers. The Tinseltown touches were in honor of the evening’s big auction item: two tickets to the Academy Awards and the Vanity Fair Oscar party.

If this school’s soiree sounds exceptional, it isn’t. Forget car washes and bake sales. Private schools in Manhattan, Los Angeles and elsewhere play host to some of the glitziest fund-raising affairs on the social calendar, at the center of which is an auction. “It really is all about access,” notes Karen Quinn, author of The Ivy Chronicles, a novel about the private school circuit on the Upper East Side. “These auctions offer you access to some of the sexiest items you couldn’t buy anywhere else.”

With their grand pageantry and impressive catalogues, these benefits take months to plan. Parent volunteers are typically tapped before the academic year starts to spearhead the epic undertaking. “I worked harder on this than I did my full-time job,” notes one former auction chair. “My full-time paying job.”
Says another former volunteer: “There were nights, many nights, when the committee was up working until three or four in the morning.”

While the items on the auction block certainly bolster the evening’s profits, the event itself—for which tickets are typically $200 to a steep $700—makes money regardless. “We don’t spend a million to make a million,” says one former auction chair. In other words, schools make sure almost every aspect of the gala—from the liquor to the venue—is underwritten. And the result is quite elaborate. What used to be held in parents’ co-ops and school basements is now held at Cipriani Wall Street and The Pierre. Themes are big, as is the elite entertainment. (Dan Akyroyd, a parent at Sacred Heart in Manhattan, has served as that school’s auction emcee, and Bruce Springsteen, whose kids go to The Center for Early Education in Los Angeles, has performed at that school’s gala.)

These days, benefits typically rake in north of half a million dollars. And schools strategically plan these events for April—after parents have received their year-end bonuses. In order to make the big bucks, they call in the big guns. “Schools with the wealthiest parent bodies typically have the most elaborate auctions,” says Victoria Goldman, author of The Family Guide to Manhattan Private Schools.  

Catalogues feature about a thousand items—many of which have been donated by a parent (or at least facilitated by a parent). While some of these items come with a set value attached (like a Jeff Koons sculpture on the block at New York’s Horace Mann School), the bulk is priceless.

Take, for instance, a round of golf with then-president Bill Clinton (bought for $76,000 at Sidwell Friends School in Washington when Chelsea was a student there) or a private tennis lesson with John McEnroe (offered at New York’s Trinity School, where McEnroe’s kids go) or backstage passes for American Idol (on the block at Los Angeles’ Archer School, where host Randy Jackson is a parent).

But the real cash cows are works of art created by the students. Last year, for example, Columbia Grammar on the Upper West Side earned $40,000 on a panel painted by a pack of lower-school kids. And two years ago, St. David’s in Manhattan sold a quilt sewn by second-graders for $30,000. “I don’t think it’s about snuggling up with a warm quilt,” Goldman notes. “A huge part of it is saying, ‘I won.’”

Of course, with this exchange of high-profile and costly goods, some snafus have occurred. Goldman cites one example of a father who won a walk-on roll in a Woody Allen film. “Here’s a guy who likes to be known for his money, is proud of how cool he is and thinks he’s about to become this big movie star,” Goldman laughs. “And after all that Sturm und Drang, he ends up on the cutting-room floor.”

But, really, do these schools actually need the money? Surprisingly, yes. According to the National Association of Independent Schools, the average median tuition for the 2006-07 academic year was $15,763, while the average expense per student was $17,225. (In New York and Los Angeles, both of these figures are roughly doubled.) “It’s probably one of the most important investments you can make—to give to your child’s school,” Goldman says.  

For this reason, Goldman doesn’t criticize the parents who are willing to splurge for their children’s art projects. Rather, she faults those parents who can afford to engage in outrageous bidding wars—and don’t. “I can’t stand the parents who walk in wearing $10,000 on their backs and refuse to spend even a 10th of that.”

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