American Times: New York - First prize: a night out with Norman

Click to follow
THE MODEL is doing her best. The lighting in the ballroom of Manhattan's Pierre Hotel isn't helping and the 200 guests at the fund- raising gala for the American-Italian Cancer Foundation seem underwhelmed by the flowing brown shawl she is showing.

"It's pretty, but not that pretty," grumbles a womansitting behind me. "Yes, but a Fendi is a Fendi," protests her husband.

When the auctioneer, Simon Teakle, a senior vice-president at Christie's, closes the bidding, the shawl - a handmade tulle affair with tufts of weasel fur - goes to a gentleman for $12,000 (pounds 7,650). He has a bargain. The donor value, according to the catalogue, is $25,000.

All told, however, the evening turns out well for the foundation. The Mercedes convertible that was parked outside as we came in - value $51,000 - fetches $75,000. And someone pays $2,800 to take five friends to dinner at the Four Seasons in the company of Norman Mailer. Before retiring for dinner with the rest of us, Mr Teakle manages to squeeze $160,000 out of us for just 15 lots.

It is not just the live auction that brings in the dollars. It is preceded by an hour of cocktails and hors d'oeuvre in adjoining reception rooms where guests are encouraged to participate in a silent auction for 260 items donated by myriad companies and corporations.

The sign-up list is empty for a free check-up at the Westside family dental group, included in the hobbies and entertainment section. But for a free day of game shooting on the Millbrook Preserve in upstate New York there are entries from $200 and up. Buying a table at the dinner runs in the thousands. As a guest of Benetton, however, I tactfully refrain from asking just how many thousand.

This is the time of year when the charity circuit goes into high gear. If he had the energy, Teakle, a native of Sussex, could be wielding his gavel free of charge at similar events across town every night until Christmas.

Just look at what is coming up in the New York charity calendar. Last night, for example, you could have paid $25,000 for a table at the New York City Ballet opening night benefit with performances of works by Balanchine.

Probably the glitziest of all evenings, however, one where guests have the best chance of getting their pictures in the tabloid gossip pages, comes on 7 December. That is the night of the Metropolitan Museum of Art's fabulous Costume Institute Benefit.

Such events are the celebrity tip of a fund-raising iceberg. Any institutions - libraries, hospitals, radio stations - that need money they cannot get from government must invade the pockets of private citizenry and auctions are a favourite strategy. Even these events are not always humble. At a recent auction for a girls' school in Greenwich, Connecticut, the star lot was a labrador puppy. It fetched $38,000.

Why do people go to auctions, and why shell out so much? The cynical say that the more you give, the higher you are on the rungs of America's faux aristocracy. Others may go because they are lonely. On this evening, one woman admits her mission is to find a husband. She enters the bidding twice in the hope of impressing the handsome man next to her.

Then there is the matter of tax. At my table, a broker explains I should not be too impressed by the $75,000 paid for the car. Once you take account of the tax-deduction for having given to charity, the buyer is paying $45,000 - below the sticker price.

Still, I refuse to be cynical. This is about giving and about generosity. It is about an understanding that many Americans share, whether at a gala evening at the Pierre or when they reach into their wallets for the Salvation Army at Christmas - that this is far from a welfare state, and that the private citizen has to help. Michael McCallion, a voice-training consultant for Christie's who is also at this dinner, said: "Americans have their social dues to pay and they pay those dues." Judging by the money flowing tonight, he is not wrong.