Griff Rhys Jones: How I dragged my ‘celebrity mates’ into helping Ipswich children’s hospice
- Credit: NEIL DIDSBURY
Suffolk’s Griff Rhys Jones is holding his Celebrity Bottom Drawer auction of famous people’s cast-offs to raise money for East Anglia’s Children’s Hospices (EACH). Here, he writes amusingly about his ‘money-making wheezes’ - and why giving to his latest sale is particularly important.
The first charity auction I ever mucked up was in the (now suddenly fashionable) 80s.
It was in an art gallery in Windmill Street for Comic Relief. Would I do the first ten lots?
They had a professional from Sotheby’s for the rest, so I rolled in, equipped with apercus and a gavel.
They had an impressive collection. Not just gallery artists, but big names.
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I started up. “I used to know nothing about art, but I knew what I liked. Now I know lots and have no idea what I like.” Ha ha.
They were a jolly group. A little scruffy if anything. “Help me out by pushing the bids up. You won’t get it I promise. Heh heh.”
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I glanced down. Whew. The first lot was estimated at £3,000. For this? “Right. Who’ll start me off at two grand….” The room was silent. It was an abstract sort of thing in greys. “Er… two grand, anyone?”
The pause stretched on longer than the one when a drunk woman tried to lift Clive Anderson’s kilt on stage in Falkenham. I was dying. For a good cause.
“How about one five?” The bearded assembly stared back.
I stumbled on: waffling, beseeching, and finally abjectly pleading. A real bead of sweat trickled down the back of my collar.
It wasn’t entirely my naivety. The only people in the room were artists, come to see how much their donations made.
The gallery had failed the basic rule of charity auctions. Get show-off money in the room. All they had were impoverished painters with strong opinions about the value of their own work, who glowered at me as I struggled to get bids for their exertions.
I have got a trickle down the spine again with my latest venture - Celebrity Bottom Drawer.
This is an online auction, an eBay of A-listers. Famous people’s cast-offs. Not only patina but provenance.
We have spent the last couple of months soliciting bygones from the big names. They are available to bidders now. Will we get the cash? I am not in the room to cajole or bully. It’s all online.
East Anglia’s Children’s Hospices is the most direct and valuable charity I have ever been involved with.
It makes a real, measurable difference to people’s lives, offering a safe, strong and experienced helping hand to people who need one.
To do this, they raise 83% of the money they need every year from you, the people of East Anglia.
They are not part of the National Health Service. Every year, you do it.
But not this year. When nobody has been able to go on that sponsored run or organise a spelling bee, takings have fallen by two-thirds.
Can our super, web-wide jumble sale make a difference?
When the Hackney Empire needed £20million, I had a great idea called “The Businessman’s Bonus Bingo”.
We would get all the city boys to lose their annual bonuses at the Empire. We got a range of top comics, including Hugh Laurie (who justifiably avoids me these days) to call the numbers.
We had a fantastic range of donated holidays and golf club sets, spas and bars as prizes and, in the end, about 12 bankers in the 2,000-seater auditorium.
The insider information had not exactly spread. The ones who came loved it. A team from Deutsche Bank took all the prizes home, so nothing new there.
I went on to out-do Wodehouse’s Ukridge with my ingenious schemes (The Apprentice Night of a hundred different parties across London presided over by Lord Alan Sugar - which raised £300,000 in one swoop - was one of the more successful ones).
But the funding business proved a long game. If you want to raise £1million for charity, that is very roughly speaking £1,000 a day, every day, including Sundays, for about three years. Jumble sales can have a limited value.
We finally sorted the art auction business for Hackney. They were lucrative events in the end. I remember two furtive dealers turning up to grab a cheap Damien Hirst. Luckily they bid against each other.
But there are pitfalls.
After an excellent night in Fleming’s Bank, I sat down and a woman grasped me in her diamond encrusted talons.
She insisted I auction a week at her house in the Caribbean: “The finest on the island.”
But we had finished. This wasn’t in the catalogue. The crowd was dispersing.
I reluctantly got to my feet, but as I did so I was grabbed by her annoying companion. “You’ve got to get at least ten thousand,” he hissed.
“Er… Ladies and gentlemen, we have a late write-in…”
Luckily, I had one bidder. He came in at five. The lizard glowered. I took a bid off the wall. Oh dear. Six. We went up. Seven. Eight. Nine.
This was the business. The bidder suddenly stopped. The wall had now bought the villa.
“Ok. Sir. I’m sure it’s yours… come on, just a little more. We can’t let the most superb villa in the whole of the Caribbean go for this. It’s with you…”
And so on. I knew him. I knew he was very rich. I knew he was generous. I bullied and cajoled this poor embarrassed man until he finally stumped up.
We sold the villa for ten. The next day the woman said she didn’t want to let strangers in her precious place after all.
What I always tell people at auctions is that they don’t really want this stuff. It’s a way of making a donation with a prize at the end.
The reason I am doing this now is to try to get serious money interested in EACH and on board. It’s publicity. It’s a pitch. We need to get proper money too. I’ve done benefits for them. These things don’t raise millions, but they put the cause on the map.
Last year, we took over the Ipswich Regent. Lee Mack and Al Murray and Rick Wakeman came and were very funny.
This year that’s out. So I have offered to organise “my celebrity mates” to put things up for auction.
I don’t actually have any celebrity mates. I lost them, trying to drag them in to other causes. But hundreds of personal letters later, we have a list.
Inter alia, I realised that I was maybe unwise calling it “Celebrity Bottom Drawer”, alongside pictures of David Walliams, Ralph Fiennes, Davina McCall, Jonathan Pryce, Toby Jones et al. So I have hastily amended the strap line to “Top Drawer Celebrities offer the contents of their Bottom Drawer”.
Myself, I thought I would offer up a museum quality hand-made African coffin that was created for me in Accra, but a coffin seemed of dubious taste for the cause which is amongst the most life-affirming I have ever experienced. I have amended that to “a piece of museum quality African folk art”.
I wondered if anyone would get bidding. Dawn French has given a Rolex Watch. We have a Mont Blanc Pen worth £7,000. Tom Hollander has “re-gifted” a Tiffany travel clock inscribed “VALKYRIE” given to him by Tom Cruise when they both starred in that film.
Crates of wine, pictures, suits. It’s a full house clearance. With over 100 lots, I was getting nervous.
But I have to say the first day was explosive. We already have a large sum committed. The closing day for bidding approaches on December 6.
I am assured by Bid In, who have given the entire auctioneer service for free, that everybody who really wants to bid will come piling in then. That may mean even more. This is very exciting.
On that first outing, 35 years ago, I left the podium in a fluster. The experienced Sotheby’s auctioneer took over. After my failure to sell anything much at all, he quickly started the next painting at a tenner, the room woke up and he sold it for two thousand, riding a wave of frenzied bargain-hunters.
As with all these things, momentum is the game. We won’t solve the shortfall that the hospices have experienced this year, but we might use this event to alert people to the need and allow them to contribute.
If you want to do that, we have some special lots in place. You can bid a sum to buy something for EACH. It will go straight to the charity and you won’t get any more clutter at all.
But if you do want a Christmas bargain, with celebrity appeal, for a fan of Downton or Game of Thrones or Bond or the Durrells, then have a look and get bidding quick. We’ve even got a PS5. And we have lots of well-priced bargains too.
And if you just want a peek at the understair-cupboards of the famous, get along there to www.celebritybottomdrawer.com to have look - but don’t forget to donate for the fun.