Sotheby's, perhaps emulating its best clients, seems to be diversifying its portfolio. This month they jumped into the gallery business with S2, and now it looks as if they might be getting into the food business as well. For the second time in as many years, the auction house held the "Art of Farming," a gala and auction of "edible heirlooms" to benefit two New York City-based nonprofits, GrowNYC — the organization behind the city's 35 greenmarkets — and the Sylvia Center — which runs cooking programs for children in the city. While the final tally is not yet in, the event likely raised about $120,000 to be split between the two organizations, according to the Sylvia Center's executive director Anna Hammond.
"We are incredibly grateful that in this very, very tough economic climate so many people came out in support of two charities completely devoted to providing healthy food and food education city-wide," said Hammond. She went on to emphasize that "food is at the center of our lives, our health, and our well-being. It's just great that people have not lost sight of that and the importance of access to healthy food for all."
If an "edible heirloom" auction sounds strange, note that there were very few edible lots at auction — only one of the ten. The "auction" of vegetables grown by local farmers was nothing more than an informal show of hands asking who was willing to donate $500 to send a crate of mixed heirlooms to the Yorkville Common Pantry and West Side Campaign Against Hunger. Over 20 attendees put their hands skyward.
The nine other lots, however, were sold using the traditional live auction method — though, being a charity event, auctioneer and Sotheby's chairman for North and South America James Niven gave it quite a bit more character than one is likely to see at the average evening sale. He was an entertainer as much as a salesman, cracking jokes that ranged in subject from Belgium to chicken feces (sticking to the farm theme). Niven is a regular on the charity auction circuit, and he told ARTINFO that he does about 30 such sales a year.
It is possible that a few of the guests noticed the lack of vegetables on the auction block after enjoying the four-course sit-down dinner prepared by some of the city's most well-known locavore chefs, including Jeremy Bearman of Rouge Tomate and Dan Kluger of ABC Kitchen. There is nothing quite like experiencing haute cuisine with food people. During the hour and a half that dinner was being served family style there wasn't a moment that the lazy susan in the center of each table wasn't spinning, allowing each of the guests to get their hands on each of the 40 different dishes brought to the table. Root vegetables were rampant — there was hardly a dish without a radish, beet, or carrot — but the spread was far from vegetarian-friendly. Some of the most popular dishes included a roasted radish-and-buttermilk tart by Ryan Angulo of Buttermilk Channel, twelve hour red wine-braised beef shanks courtesy of Cookshop's Marc Meyer, and a salad of raw fluke, sugar baby watermelon, and black radish salad by Sisha Ortuzar of Riverpark (which caused a server to be chastised by half of table five for even thinking about taking away the communal plate when a single piece of raw fluke was still left on it).
If gala-attendees weren't in a food coma after the braised beef, they were likely in an alcohol-induced haze by the time the auction began. By ARTINFO's count, it would have been difficult to imbibe fewer than three drinks by the time Niven stepped to the podium nearly three hours into the evening. Upon arrival, guests were treated to a vodka, German peppermint, and white tea cocktail by New Jersey-based Tavalon Tea, had access to an open bar during the cannapé social hour, and were discouraged by hustling servers from letting their wine glasses stay empty (An entreaty to stop the flow of wine from a working reporter was met with a nod, then forgotten just two minutes later). Between the charitable causes and the copious amounts of wine, the auction was lively from the start.
During a particularly vigorous round of bidding, the auctioneer and Andrew Coté, the founder of NYC Beekeepers Association and donor of the lot promising a tour of an urban apiary, got into a heckling match in an attempt to drive the price up past the $2,600 winning bid from last year's event. In the end, Niven himself, through the bidding of a woman he announced to be his ex-wife, made a hefty donation of $3,500.
When bidding for an internship at the Kutztown, Pennsylvania-based Rodale Institute — a working organic farm — looked stalled at $9,000, Niven leaned on the underbidder to pledge an extra $1,000. "I have a goal here, you know," he remarked, shaming the man into bidding again. The eventual winner immediately raised the price another $1,000, and the hammer came down at $11,000, making the internship's pricetag the highest of the evening.
Other notable lots included a four-course dinner for ten at Riverpark, which fetched $4,500, and a $5,500 donation to sponsor a group of inner-city children to visit the Sylvia Center's Kitchkie Farm in Kinderhook, NY.