Contemporary Art

A Decade of (RED) Auctions

By Oliver Barker

T en years ago, Bono had the idea to stage a charity auction to raise money for (RED), which he had founded just two years before. He approached Damien Hirst to help put it together, and even though the artist was already deeply immersed in the biggest project of his career to date the "Beautiful Inside My Head Forever" auction he immediately got on board, with one stipulation: Sotheby's had to be their auction house partner. Since I had collaborated closely with Damien on his "Pharmacy" sale in 2004, and was now planning "Beautiful" with him, I entered into the project, too. It was a life-changing event for all of us.

May 2008, New York: The exterior of Sotheby's York Avenue headquarters on the evening of the (RED) charity auction organized by Damien Hirst and musician, Bono, helping to raise $42 million to help fight AIDS in Africa.

Damien is truly an alchemist, with no shortage of vision or ambition. As soon as he signed on to (RED), his aspiration for the auction became huge. He came up with a brilliant theme all of the works in the auction would be inspired by the color red and the concept of love and committed to personally approach the world's leading artists. Damien appealed to all of the donating artists and only wanted first-rate works. But he also understood that if you don't give yourself, you will get nothing in return. And so he led by example, contributing seven incredible art works to the auction himself. It was thrilling to be the auctioneer that evening, and the event was an incredible success; we raised $42 million for the fight against AIDS, setting 17 artist records along the way.

Auctioneer Oliver Barker

Five years later, Bono brought in Sir Jony Ive and Marc Newson arguably the two most influential contemporary designers in the world for a second edition. They brought an encyclopaedic knowledge of their field to the enterprise, along with impish humour and nerdish enthusiasm. They curated a once-in-a-lifetime exhibition of design objects that paid hommage to their heroes and revealed the multi-layered inspirations behind their own practices. And, like Damien, they were personally generous as donors: the desk they designed together for the auction is, in my opinion, one of the great design works of the last 20 years. The auction was magical especially when Bono interrupted the proceedings to sing two songs as Chris Martin played a Steinway that brought $1.9 million. We added another $26 million, including a match from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, to the AIDS fight that night.

Jony and Marc's (RED) Auction in 2013

And now we are in the final stages of preparation for a third (RED) auction. For this one, Bono has brought together two geniuses from complementary fields: artist Theaster Gates and architect Sir David Adjaye, who are united by a reverence for light and for social good. Theaster and David have an uncommon ability to look beneath the carpet of social and corporate greed as they champion those who are ill or oppressed. They've also contributed some smashing unique works, and inspired donations from an incredible list of international artists.

A "Zvezda" Cosmonaut Suit Worn on a Soviet Space Agency Mission into Space , which sold for $305,000 at Jony and Marc's (RED) Auction

Uniting this decade-long journey has been Bono, whose outsized vision is only matched by his determination. He's a Svengali figure and an enabler, leading one of the most important fights of our time while retaining an almost-childlike capacity for amazement and delight. Like so many others, I would never say "no" to Bono when he asks for help.

Larry Gagosian is another thread that unites the first auction with this one. He is a natural collaborator, who has elevated these auctions through his amazing roster of contemporary talent, and as in 2008, is generously hosting the (RED) exhibition in Miami.

Ultimately, the success of these auctions have relied on our clients, who have been so amazingly generous in the auction room. Like all of us, they recognize that this is an emergency that needs urgent action. I am so looking forward to raising the gavel in Miami this December, and once again uniting the art world to do all that we can.

Stay informed with Sotheby’s top stories, videos, events & news.

Receive the best from Sotheby’s delivered to your inbox.

By subscribing you are agreeing to Sotheby’s Privacy Policy. You can unsubscribe from Sotheby’s emails at any time by clicking the “Manage your Subscriptions” link in any of your emails.

More from Sotheby's

Bid Now in the (RED) Online Auction

(RED) Live Auction