Pulse: Social Diary: I’ll Take It!

During a school auction last spring, our friend N. arrived back at our table looking shell-shocked. She’d just come from the silent-auction tables, where she’d had her eye on a glossy acoustic guitar (retail value: $250) for her daughter. Shakily clutching a vodka, she recounted that she’d been muscled aside by a fellow parent who’d literally body-blocked his $800 bid. “I tried to put down a last bid,” N. said, “but he was right up in my face.”

Back in the old days on the charity circuit (the ’90s), silent auctions were an adjunct to a black-tie event, a way to raise a few extra thousand dollars for cancer research or a new hospital wing. Committee members dutifully fanned out about town, cajoling a shop in Wayne to donate a needlepoint belt or a socialite to throw in a garden tour. Now, such auctions are the centerpieces of charity parties: Last year, well-connected chairwomen for an Art Museum benefit produced an über-raffle at which browsers bid on a stay in a suite at the Delano in Miami Beach, a weekend in Paris, an antique diamond-and-sapphire necklace, and a cocktail party for 50 at Saks. Even local nursery schools have become mini-Sotheby’s, selling off spectacular spa treatments at Bluemercury, jewelry from Jack Kellmer and weekends at the Four Seasons.

Unfortunately, though, these auctions de luxe now elicit the hungry, aggressive behavior usually seen in front of the crab claws at a particularly good brunch buffet. It was a few hours into last May’s Steppingstone Scholars gala when my friend D. realized she wouldn’t be taking home a single item up for bid, thanks to a well-lubricated and increasingly loud guest spending like a sailor in a Tijuana strip club. “There were a few big items in the live auction,” says D., a socialite who likes to bid on hotel stays, “and this one patron spent the whole night running from the auction to the bar to get another cocktail.” At one point, D. turned to the man, who was now bidding $6,000 for something. She asked him what. He shrugged. “I have no idea,” he said.

Bidding frenzy is understandable to some degree, especially when there’s an open bar involved: Down two chardonnays, and suddenly you’re waving a paddle with a rising sense of panic as the sober part of you realizes that there’s no place in your life for a customized snowboard. I once attended a fund-raiser at Ardrossan where a drunken colleague jokingly wrote my name on the silent auction form for a $900 hand-painted pig, which wasn’t quite so funny when I received a call the next morning from the chipper-voiced committee chairwoman announcing that I’d “won it!” But his boozy antics were nothing compared to the auction where one woman used her innocent 12-year-old to shoo away other guests from bidding on a beach-house stay for a holiday weekend.

Like that $900 pig, it’s a good idea to be careful what you bid for — since you just might get it. “We once bid on a week at a house in Maine,” says my friend M., “only to find out that the week was in January.”