W hen Sotheby’s opened on Bond Street in London in 1917, it did so with a benevolent bash: a grand charitable exhibition featuring works by servicemen wounded during the First World War was attended by Queen Mary. The event heralded more than simply the company’s arrival in Mayfair: a tradition was born. Ever since then, Sotheby’s has hosted countless charity auctions and gala events.
Over the years, Sotheby’s charitable auctions have covered many collecting fields and a vast array of good causes. In the 1960s, Sotheby’s London staged sales in aid of the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association and the World Refugee Year Fund. And at Sotheby’s New York galleries in the 1970s, Manhattan fashionistas turned out – sharply – for a Fashion Benefit to raise funds for the New York Lung Association.
There has been the magical – JK Rowling’s hand-written and illustrated The Tales of Beedle the Bard sold at Sotheby's London in 2007, raising £1.95 million for The Children's Voice charity. And there has been the laughable – Robbie Williams auctioned, among other things, his tiger-themed underpants in the same saleroom in aid of Comic Relief in 2001 (they achieved £2,000).
In the late 1980s, famed art dealer Leo Castelli and Elizabeth Taylor lit up the Art Against AIDS Benefit at Sotheby's New York. Castelli arrived with a cheque for $400,000. “It’s just a modest beginning,” he said; Taylor replied: “I just love men with cheques.” Roy Lichtenstein, Richard Gere, Bianca Jagger and Yoko Ono all arrived to offer their support.
The event was a precursor to perhaps, to date, the most high-profile charity event in the company’s history – the (RED) auctions. This landmark series of sales launched in 2008 to raise awareness and funds for the fight against AIDS in African countries. The venture was the brainchild of U2 frontman Bono and the artist Damien Hirst. Oliver Barker, Chairman of Sotheby’s Europe, came on board.
“It was a life-changing event for all of us,” Barker recalls. “As soon as Damien 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.”
The 2008 sale included works by Hirst, Takashi Murakami, Richard Prince, Jeff Koons and Andreas Gursky. The evening totalled $42 million and set 17 artist records (including for Sir Peter Blake and Banksy). The fundraising continued with further (RED) sales five years later and again in 2018.
And this May the New York galleries will host a two-day sale of works – by 35 Contemporary artists – in aid of the Hammer Museum at UCLA. Figures who have donated works include Ed Ruscha, Mark Bradford and Vija Celmins. The auctions on 16 and 17 May at Sotheby’s New York are set to write another chapter in Sotheby’s charitable opus.