Little Auction That Did

It is an axiom in book collecting that the market value of an object is not necessarily determined by what one person is willing to pay for the privilege of ownership, but by the lengths to which a determined underbidder is willing to compete for the prize in open bidding. This dynamic was in persuasive evidence last night a few miles north of West Palm Beach in Stuart, Florida, at an auction organized to benefit the Hibiscus Children's Center, a local charity dedicated to the needs of abused and neglected youngsters.

Billed the Little Auction That Could in respectful tribute to Watty Piper's classic children's tale of infinite possibilities, The Little Engine That Could, the premise was centered around asking various celebrities to inscribe copies of books that had meaning in their lives. More than 80 people responded, and it was decided to offer the books for sale in two venues, online at eBay for 70 of the items in a contest that continues through Nov. 25, and last night in open competition at the historic Lyric Theater before an audience of 400 people for 14 others.

A total of $34,000 was raised last night, the most coveted item being Pop-up White House, a nicely engineered piece of movable art with illustrations by local artist Chuck Fischer--and signed by President Barack Obama; this neat little item, a unique curiosity if ever there was one, was hammered down at $6,500.  Equally robust was the $4,500 paid for a copy of Edgar Rice Burroughs Tarzan of the Apes signed by the renowned animal authority Jane Goodall--her specialty is chimpanzees, naturally--the $2,900 for a copy of Horatio Alger, Jr.'s Struggling Upward signed by Maya Angelou, and the $2,600 bid for the copy of Harry Potter (Book 7), inscribed by the author, J. K. Rowling.

It was a great program, about as capably conceived, organized, and executed as anything comparable I have ever been associated with, and the credit for that certainly goes out to every member of the crackerjack staff of volunteers, but primarily to the guiding spirit, the co-chair of the event, Karla Preissman, who came up with the concept two years ago, and contacted every celebrity individually to participatee. A brilliant move on her part was to arrange for a tastefully mounted exhibition of the books at the Elliott Museum in Stuart, which my wife and I had a chance to visit yesterday before the evening's festivities.

It was an unannounced visit there earlier in the week by a person who has chosen to remain anonymous that led to the preemptive bid of $850,000--that is not a typo, it is $850,000--for a copy of Jean de Brunhoff's The Travels of Babar co-signed by former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, and his mother, the former First Lady, Barbara Bush.

The benefactor was said to be passionate about the goals of the Hibiscus Center, and found this a worthy way of supporting it. In one fell swoop--before the first bid went up last night--the Little Auction That Could became the Little Auction That Most Assuredly Did, all of it made possible by the enduring magic of books. An unqualified plus was the opportunity I had to speak on the program with Carl Hiaasen; the man is a fabulous speaker, and a real hoot.