[Paleopsych] NYT: The School Auction as Economic Indicator
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Mon Apr 18 20:12:19 UTC 2005
The School Auction as Economic Indicator
By JENNIFER STEINHAUER
There are many ways to gauge the economic recovery of New York's most
lucrative professions, and everyone has a favorite indicator. The
packed dining rooms of $250-a- plate-restaurants. The plethora of
luxury hotels being converted into apartments. The mere existence of
an $800 haircut offered on Gansevoort Street.
But surely one of the best is the $40,000 fetched recently by Columbia
Grammar School for a nautical-themed mural panel, made by some of its
youngest students and sold at its annual benefit auction.
Every spring, schools across the city hold benefit auctions to beef up
their coffers, allowing another year of scholarships, school upkeep
and general expenses to be met. The affairs range from the folksy -
dance parties in the school gym - to the elaborate - a night at
Cipriani - and pull in anywhere from just less than $100,000 to more
than $600,000, with several Manhattan private schools netting near the
top of the range.
Often, as goes the stock market, so goes the annual auction take.
"I have been here 18 years, and I can say that when things are going
well in the economy, we tend to do well, too," said George P. Davison,
the head of Grace Church School in Greenwich Village. "That is the
reason for the timing of the auctions," Mr. Davison said, "because
people don't get their bonuses until after January."
Grace Church is still calculating its final tally from last week's
auction but is likely to end up 8 percent higher than last year's,
when its $460,000 net was 50 percent more than the previous year's.
School auctions have come a long way since the late 1970's, when a
group of families from the Trevor Day School gathered for a potluck
dinner auction in a West End Avenue apartment, taking in $10,000.
Today's auctions feature elaborate themes and fancy sites, as well as
catalogs filled with summer homes in Greece, floor seats to Knicks
games and offers for private time with popular teachers.
"There is quite a range in terms of the amount of energy and activity
that goes into them," said Patricia Girardi, executive director of the
Parents League, an association that helps parents navigate the private
school system. "Even nursery schools are able to do very handsomely."
Auction catalogs also provide a window into the distinct cultures of
Chef parents, for example, often live downtown. So it is that Grace
Church pulled in $38,000 for a dinner for 12 in the winning bidder's
home, prepared by the fathers Danny Meyer and Tom Colicchio. And Mario
Batali will be cooking in the home of the winning family from LREI in
That school, which encompasses the Little Red School House and
Elisabeth Irwin High School, holds two auctions. One offers only art,
featuring parents like the artist Tom Slaughter and the photographer
At the general auction, a family can bid to have a photograph of their
child taken with one of William Wegman's dogs. "We are very fortunate
being a downtown school," said Pippa Gerard, the director of
development at the school. "Many artists have sent their children
News media people tend to flock uptown, as do random sports
celebrities. At the Trinity School on the Upper West Side, parents can
win tennis lessons with John McEnroe, at an event with Paula Zahn as
the M.C. At the Dalton School, Al Roker auctioned off backstage tours
of the "Today Show."
The Berkeley Carroll School in Brooklyn combines the groovy
independent film vibe - the "Sopranos" star Steve Buscemi offered a
tour of the set - with local color. One family paid $4,000 to have
lunch with the Brooklyn borough president, Marty Markowitz, at
Bamonte's in Williamsburg. "The place is quintessential Brooklyn,"
said Henry Trevor, an assistant head of the school.
And what to say, exactly, about the Packer Collegiate Institute, also
in Brooklyn, where $100 could get one a gift certificate to a company
"dedicated to the spreading of sexual enlightenment through the
promulgation of chosen playthings," as well as a guide to good sex?
Parents volunteer to do everything from decorating the catering hall
to checking the coats at the auctions. But in the city's most
expensive schools, some parents squirm in their seats as the
wealthiest among them battle with their paddles to win vacations at
holiday homes in Italy, chartered sailboat rides, private time with
the school director and the science teacher's hazelnut cake recipe.
"It is a nice community event," said one Grace Church parent, who
spoke on the condition of anonymity. "But you better have money in
that community. If you were a family getting any degree of
scholarship, who is just scraping by to send your kid here, it would
have been a lot to take." At Dalton, several parents say they do not
even consider attending the auction, considering that tickets are
Occasionally, bridges are burned, bad karma invited. Sometimes someone
drinks too much, overbids and then cannot pay the next morning, one
school director said. At an Upper East Side nursery school one year, a
group of parents who were officers in their respective companies
donated 10 shares of stock each to create a miniportfolio. The buyer,
according to one parent, eagerly paid up, and then immediately shorted
all the shares, showing a lack of confidence in his peers' companies.
Some schools are trying to tone down the auction fever. Trinity, for
example, canceled its live auction in 2003 in favor of a benefit with
a small silent auction.
"We came to the conclusion that the auction, from a fund-raising point
of view, was very successful," said Myles Amend, director of
development at the school. "But it was not open to the entire
community. As we talked among ourselves, there was just a sort of
general level of discomfort with the auction process."
John McEnroe still auctioned off tennis lessons last week, Mr. Amend
said, just silently. "It has made a big difference in bringing the
school community together," he said. "You want fund-raisers that are
At the Ethical Culture Fieldston School, the auction is now done
online, with eBay as a model.
And the proceeds from tonight's auction at St. Hilda's and St. Hugh's
in Morningside Heights will all be donated tsunami victims in a
village in India, the first time the school has ever donated its
But some things about auctions may never change. The most coveted
items remain the homemade projects fashioned by the school's children.
Many schools have children make a quilt of some sort; others do murals
like the one at Columbia Grammar.
This year, for example, St. David's, the boys' school on the Upper
East Side, sold a quilt made by second graders for $30,000, the
highest amount ever fetched for a school project, according to Maureen
Barry, the director of development there.
"Somehow it seems pure to bid on a quilt," said Anne Goldrush, who
runs her own real estate company and once was co-chairwoman of the
auction at Christ Church Nursery School.
"It is almost something about the sentimentality about it that allows
people to feel free to go nuts. And on some level, everyone wants to
come home and tell their child that they got the quilt."
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