The Conservative party’s Black and White Ball is a lavish, billionaire-laden affair. Tickets can cost up to £1,500, with guests who shell out the full £15,000 for a group of ten rewarded with the presence of a cabinet minister on their table. But even if that sounds a bit steep, selling tickets isn’t the main objective. What really makes money is the post-dinner auction, at which Russian oligarchs bid tens or hundreds of thousands for lots such as shoe-shopping with Theresa May, a week in a luxury chalet in Verbier, or (mop my fevered brow) a dinner date with Sajid Javid.
But at this year’s ball the top bids were distinctly underwhelming. That could have been down to the lots offered — ‘a day of campaigning with Zac Goldsmith’ didn’t sound hugely appealing — but even so, when a £1,000 Kurt Geiger voucher goes for just £1,020 in a room full of millionaires, you know something’s up. Of course, it could just be that, thanks to Jeremy Corbyn, Tory big spenders think the next ten years of Conservative rule are already in the bag, so they hardly need a campaign war-chest, do they?
On the other hand, an underspend at the Tories’ biggest fundraiser of the year could signal something more serious in the world of charity auctioneering. Has the concept gone out of fashion? Well, not really. But there are alternatives nowadays. After all, the tradition is an odd one. Whoever came up with the idea of convincing people to part with big money for tickets just so they could compete for the privilege of spending even bigger money on stuff they don’t need certainly had a bold imagination.
These days, eBay auctions for charity are common-place (the widely mocked Philip Treacy hat that Princess Beatrice wore to the royal wedding was sold this way, raising £81,100.01) while companies such as GiveSmart and Givergy allow organisers to include mobile and online bidding in live auctions. At the time of writing an online auction outlet called Charitybuzz is selling everything from tea for two at the House of Lords with Julian Fellowes to a one-night walk-on role in the Broadway production of Les Misérables.
For buyers, charity auctions can be a fantastic opportunity to get hold of rare or unique objects and experiences: anything from tennis lessons with former world No. 1s to one-of-a-kind art works (Tracey Emin is a regular donor); not to mention the infamous occasion when Sir Philip Green spent £60,000 on a kiss from Kate Moss — an opportunity which he duly passed on to Jemima Khan.
Green is currently in the bad books over his sale of BHS, but one thing to be said for the maverick retail boss is that he isn’t afraid of putting his hand in his pocket at charity auctions. He has shelled out £150,000 for a guitar signed by Bono, and £20,000 for lunch with Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre. No doubt he enjoys having friends in high places — but he still hands over the cash.
Lower-profile local auctions can also offer good deals. It might be uncharitable to admit, but if you happen to be the only person in the room who likes Adele, then those VIP tickets could even be cheaper than buying them from the box office.
But before you drain your glass and start waving wildly at the auctioneer, be aware of the pitfalls. First, if you worry about your reputation, do think about where your money is going: the last thing you want is to see your name associated with a charity that seemed legitimate when you paid up, but is in fact pocketing squillions promised to African orphans. It might also seem obvious, but do check the details of what it is you are buying. Is that signed Hockney print really one of a run of 50, or was it actually one of 500? Is Sajid Javid offering the full Come Dine With Me experience or just a quick takeaway?
There are even more caveats if you decide to participate as donor rather than bidder — by offering hospitality in your own home, for example. Tales abound of boorish guests, often with unspeakable children, who feel the size of their winning bid entitles them to treat their hosts like Downton servants.
But still, it’s a relatively painless way of supporting good causes by the simple measure of parting the well-off and willing from small slices of their spare cash. And remember, if you have the opportunity, to thank the organiser. Convincing people to part with their time or belongings for free is no mean feat.