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Online Celebrity Fundraising Auctions: A Look Back at the One that Started It All

by Wayne Jordan (12/31/12).

Guitar belonging to Carlos Santana, boxing gloves signed by Mohammed Ali and audiences with the Pope have all been sold at a celebrity charity auctions.

What does a guitar from Carlos Santana, a boxing glove from Mohammed Ali and an audience with the Pope have in common? They were all sold at a celebrity charity auction.

Celebrity auctions have become the prime generator of “big bucks” for charities of all types. Consider recent auction results: for $255,000, you could have spent the day with President Clinton to benefit the Clinton Global Initiative. For $497,000, you might have owned the 1956 Fender Stratocaster that Eric Clapton used to write his hit “Layla,” which he contributed to benefit the Crossroads Center, a substance abuse rehabilitation facility in Antigua. And, for a mere $75,000, you could learn to play your Strat in a private guitar lesson with Paul Simon, to benefit the Children’s Health Fund. The cost for an audience with the Pope? A mere $39,500, and you didn’t even have to be Catholic. His Holiness donated his time on behalf of the RFK Center for Justice and Human Rights.

Of course, the auctions mentioned were gala events attended by high-rollers with big disposable incomes. But attending a celebrity collectibles auction no longer requires an outlay of $1,000 or more per plate just to gain entry. You and I have easy access to celebrity memorabilia online. In the 21st century, the Internet is the Great Equalizer and all one needs to participate is the means to back up one’s bid. From high school fundraisers to medical centers to organizations promoting world peace, charities and grassroots organizations are climbing onto the celebrity auction bandwagon. Not only do the organizations benefit from these auctions, but so do collectors: when an item is purchased at a celebrity auction, its provenance is never in question. Like you and me, when celebrities donate merchandise they expect a receipt. The receipt becomes the validating document for the Certificate of Authenticity that proves the item’s provenance.

Online celebrity auctions are nearly as old as online auctions in general. The first online auction site was AuctionWeb, started in 1996. The site grew rapidly and changed its approach often; within a year its name had been changed to eBay. Two years later, while eBay was still perfecting its code, singer-songwriter Janis Ian held the very first international online celebrity fundraising auction in 1998.

Offered at auction were more than 300 items belonging to Ian, including Janis’ Hamburg Steinway piano, audio tapes and masters, musical equipment, clothing, jewelry, memorabilia and the original hand-written lyrics to her 1975 hit song “At Seventeen.” The auction ran for nine weeks from Sept. 15 through Nov. 15, 1998. It was conducted to establish a scholarship fund for students at Vermont’s Goddard College in the name of Janis’ mother Pearl.

Executing the Internet’s first online celebrity auction was no small undertaking. In 1998, the Internet was still in its infancy. A minority of homes in America had computers, and even fewer had internet connections. America Online ruled cyberspace; Internet connections were dial-up and charged by the minute. There were no bloggers, no Napster and no social media. Existing search engines were annoying and inefficient, and Google and Yahoo were just start-ups. EBay, as we know it, did not exist and there were no software programs available that could run an Internet auction.

“In researching this page, we found that actually a small website named auctionweb.com was running at that time, dealing mostly with antiques and computer hardware,” Ian said in an interview with WorthPoint. “Lacking in marketing funds, it would have been a completely a wrong fit for a fan auction of this type, and could not have hoped to pull as many visitors as a major artist site like janisian.com. In any event, the web staff was not aware of their existence.”

The challenge for Ian’s team was to envision how an auction could be conducted electronically, and then to write code that would execute a trouble-free auction. Live auctions are fairly straightforward affairs, but hard to mimic online. In a live auction, an auctioneer opens the bidding and steps up the bids incrementally. All bidders are within earshot and sight of the auctioneer. How could that method be translated online? Ian turned to webmaster Michael Camp of songs.com for answers, and Camp developed the platform that was used for the auction. The platform was what we would recognize today as a Forum format, and it was added to Ian’s existing website.

Of the project, Michael Camp said: “Looking over the list of things for sale, the preliminary designs for how to accept the bids, and how to keep track of the bidders, I decided to jump in and make a few additions. That began my 12- to 18-hour-per-day experience with one of the most successful Internet adventures I’ve participated in so far. Eight weeks later I was looking over nearly 4,000 e-mails, 1,100 hours of work and had communicated with more than 500 loyal Janis Ian fans.”

Janis Ian at the 1975 Folk Festival. (Photo by Peter Cunningham)

Janis Ian now. She is still writing and performing. (Photo by Peter Cunningham)

The auction raised more than $65,000, which was an excellent start for a new venture using a previously unheard-of fundraising method.

The scholarship is administered by the Goddard College and funded by The Pearl Foundation, which has been funding scholarships continuously since 2001. In addition to the Goddard scholarship, the Pearl Foundation currently has five perpetual scholarships: two at Berea College in Kentucky, one at Warren Wilson College in North Carolina and one at the University of Tennessee College of Law. As of December, 2012, The Pearl Foundation has given away more than $600,000 in scholarship funds. Fundraising is ongoing through merchandise sales on its website. Auctions have been discontinued.

These days, Internet fundraising auctions are commonplace. Organizations can create their own auction website using ready-made platforms such as ReadySetAuction and eBay’s Giving Works. Bloggers and webmasters using a WordPress framework can access free plug-ins like WP Auctions and Prospress to establish an online auction quickly and easily on their existing website.

For collectors looking for celebrity paraphernalia, here are some online auctions you may be interested in:

Screen Actors Guild Award Auction: If Hollywood memorabilia gets your blood pumping, then you’ll want to participate in this auction. Items are contributed by Guild members and auctioned three times a year. Proceeds go to support SAG educational programs and for SAG member hardship cases. See the website for dates and times.

Julien’s Auctions: Juliens dubs itself “The Auction House to the Stars” and feature a variety of entertainment memorabilia. Past auctions have included items from the collections of Cher, Barbra Streisand, Madonna, U2, Jimi Hendrix, Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson and Beatles memorabilia, including items from the estates of John Lennon and George Harrison.

Heritage Auctions: Heritage is the world’s largest collectibles auctioneer and offers a variety of celebrity collectibles and charity auctions.

Sellebrity Auctions: Sellebrity Auction is an online charity auction based in the UK. Auctioned items have been donated by celebrities. Worldwide shipping is available.

Charitybuzz: Charitybuzz offers a unique combination of items from celebrities and corporate sponsors. Current auction categories include luxury, fashion, sports and art. Bidders can browse by specific auction or celebrity sponsor.

With so many celebrity collectible auctions available, savvy collectors should be able to find signature items like photos, drum heads and guitars at very good prices. An audience with the Pope, though, will probably come with a substantial price tag attached.

Wayne Jordan spent more than 40 years in the music business as a performer, teacher, repairman and music store owner. In 25 years of musical instrument retailing he has bought, sold, rented or repaired thousands of pianos, band & orchestra, combo, and folk instruments. Wayne is currently a Virginia-licensed auctioneer and certified personal property appraiser. For more info, visit Wayne Jordan Auctions.

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