Last summer, Saskia Whitfield of The Hepatitis C Trust sent five blank postcards to artists Gilbert and George. She wasn't sure she'd receive anything back but soon afterwards the cards returned, written on by the artists with the words: Gilbert and George say – : LASH A LIBERAL, Gilbert and George say – : DO DOGGING, Gilbert and George say – : GOBBLE COCK.
These postcards now appear online as lots 59 to 63 in the Art on a Postcard auction for the Hepatitis C Trust. Until Thursday this week the postcards will hang at Whitfield Fine Art, London, in a jumble of very famous and not-so-famous artists. Every picture's the same size; all are framed in white. An art college tutor might hang alongside Damien Hirst and an unknown street artist. It's a similar to the Royal College of Art's annual secret postcard sale except here there's no set price.
"Gilbert and George got it going," says Whitfield. "We just asked everybody, and everybody asked everybody else. So we got some amazing postcards. They're all practising artists: that's all they do for a living, even though some of them might not be spectacularly famous."
The cards aren't labelled, although they're all signed by the artist on the back. The idea is that each artist remains anonymous to give everyone an equal chance to be appreciated by work rather than name, which is easier said than done. Gilbert and George splashed their names like a tabloid headline across their postcards. Marc Quinn signed his flower print, Harland Miller put his name in his hand-finished print of a Penguin book cover titled High on Hope.
It's possible to spot contributions from artists with a definite style, such as Gavin Turk's tea stain, Cecily Brown's sensual and colourful paintings, a drawing of a butterfly and another of a pill pot by Damien Hirst, whose other contribution – a crucifixion on gold – appears baroque compared with his humble ballpoint drawings. Some bigger names don't do so well alongside less well-known artists. Jeremy Deller's luminous smiley faces appear rather limp compared with two postcards which show three-dimensional drawings of everyday objects in blue pen: a bunch of flowers, a key, a comb, a nail file and a hair grip hang eloquently on a blank postcard's surface. As it turns out, this artist lectures in painting at the Royal College of Art.
"We've got masses of street artists, and some really beautiful work, but I won't say who they're by. We've also got photographs, and original paintings, which are completely gorgeous," says Whitfield.
Visitors might see a card covered in tiny sex toys or New York-style graffiti, others of birds, a boy swimming, subtle grey splodges and swirls, a painted skull and patterns like Moroccan tiles. With 201 lots, and opening prices of £50, bidding began early for Cecily Brown, Marc Quinn and Harland Miller, who quickly went up to £850. There's no limit to how much works might fetch in the countdown to the auction, which closes on Thursday evening at 9.30.
"We've had enquiries from serious collectors and we're expecting lots of people to come through and have a look," says Whitfield.
Money raised will go towards widening awareness of hepatitis C, a disease which causes cancer in the liver if not caught in time. Symptoms aren't always obvious, and sufferers might be diagnosed too late if they don't know what to look out for. It's transmitted through blood – transfusions, or sharing needles, razors or toothbrushes. It's an entirely preventable disease, which the Trust hopes to eradicate within the next 15 years. Money raised on Thursday will help to achieve this aim.
Art on a Postcard, Whitfield Fine Art, Dering St, London W1 (020 7355 0040) to 13 November. The online auction is at m.givinglive.com/artonapostcardReuse content