Auctioneering Phenom Headlines Pottery Auction
As Pinehurst resident Kay Grismer read an October 2011 story in The New York Times about CK Swett, one of New York's most sought-after charity auctioneers, two especially interesting pieces of information caught her eye.
Swett, she learned, is a senior proposal writer for Phillips de Pury and Company (an international art auction house in New York) with a passion for nonprofit fundraising. As a Duke University graduate, he has a North Carolina connection.
With these bits of information at her disposal, Grismer recognized a unique opportunity for the FirstHealth Hospice Foundation's 17th Annual Pottery Auction, which is scheduled for Saturday, Oct. 6.
"Wouldn't it be incredible if he were willing to come down to Pinehurst?" she mused.
As it happened, he was. Swett has volunteered to be the celebrity auctioneer for the live auction portion of the Saturday, Oct. 6, Pottery Auction at the Country Club of North Carolina.
He will, Grismer says, put the "fun in fundraising" - all in support of the FirstHealth Hospice Foundation, which provides support for FirstHealth Hospice and Palliative Care, the only not-for-profit hospice service in Moore County.
Proceeds from the Pottery Auction cover operational deficits for FirstHealth Hospice and ensure that anyone who needs hospice services can receive that care with dignity and respect - regardless of their ability to pay.
According to the NYT story, Swett spends his days convincing people to sell their art and objects of beauty and his evenings making the rounds of New York's charity auctions, representing both his company and his line of work as a force for good.
He describes his passion for "paying it forward" as a way to "leverage a rare skill set for considerable good, which in turn is immensely rewarding" - personally rewarding for him and financially rewarding for the recipients of his fundraising talents.
Swett's charity ventures have taken him from the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York to the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas. He has helped raised millions of dollars for more than 70 charitable institutions, championing causes that range from public schools in Manhattan to orphans in Malawi.
His favorite may be one of the smallest and certainly one of the least known.
"I've now conducted two charity events for Heroes in Transition, a small organization that helps veterans with the difficulties of returning to civilian life," he says. "It was founded by the parents of a Marine helicopter pilot killed in action, and their appreciation, as well as the appreciation of his friends and extended family, drove home the fact that I was having measurable impacts on people's lives."
'Productive Member of Society'
Swett entered the world of fine art auctioneering in 2006 as a six-week temp in the proposals department at Christie's and became a six-month fixed-term worker when a woman in the department opted for life as a stay-at-home mom.
During a 2010 segue toward "additional personal and professional development," he took a Christie's-offered public speaking course and, instead of being terrified of public speaking as he had expected, found he loved it. Within a couple of weeks of completing the course, he was doing his first charity auction.
"After that first auction, which was a near disaster, I kept with it because I loved the thrill I felt every time I was charged with trying to command a room of anywhere between 40 and 2,000 people, doing my very best to inspire them to use their discretionary money for philanthropic causes," he says. "It was the first volunteer work I truly, at a deep, visceral level, enjoyed. It made me feel like a productive member of society."
Comments he made during a June 2012 "Paying It Forward" interview on MSNBC further illuminate his passion for charity work.
"Honestly, charity auctioneering makes me happier than anything else in the world, right now," he told the interviewer. "I mean, I'm obsessed with what I do. (People) don't have to give this money ... This is out of the generosity of their hearts ... They want to make the world a better place, and I help them do that."
There is no questioning Swett's success. He was recently named one of the art world's most influential art professionals under 30. As a licensed auctioneer, he has raised something in the neighborhood of $8 million for various causes.
At a benefit dinner for Outward Bound at the Hall of Ocean Life of the American Museum of National History, he helped raise $60,000 of an overall total of $133,000 in one evening.
During the February 2012 Keep Memory Alive Foundation's "Power of Love Gala" celebrating Muhammad Ali's 70th birthday, an event hosted by Larry King, his skills helped draw a $1.1 million bid for the boxing gloves Ali was wearing during his 1965 defeat of Floyd Patterson. The bid set a record as the highest ever for a piece of boxing memorabilia sold at auction.
Although known for his auctioneering style, Swett can be just as flamboyant in his appearance. Descriptions of his event-wear suggest early Elton John - a "floppy-haired" Swett (according to The Times writer) in a gold cape and plaid pants or a vintage Yves Saint Laurent tuxedo jacket.
The bright blue titanium glasses completing an outfit that included tuxedo pants plucked from a New Jersey rummage sale came from Warby Parker and also suggested philanthropy.
"It's a friend's company, and they have been huge supporters of my work," Swett says. "I feel a strong kinship with the company because, for every pair they sell, they donate a pair to people in need, distributing over 250,000 pairs in less than three years. I wear three or four pairs, depending on my outfit, but only Warby Parkers."
Despite the unapologetic showmanship - the headline over the MSNBC interview christened him "The Mad Hatter of Charity Auctions," there is no artifice about Swett's feel for charity. It's authentic, and the invitation from the FirstHealth Hospice Foundation touched him on a very personal level.
"I watched my parents help usher both their parents toward the end of their lives - my last grandparent, my beloved Grammie, passed in February," he says, "and it reinforced just how difficult and complicated this process can be, again on so many levels."
An earlier experience with death and loss - and perhaps another reason for the magnitude of his charity work - dates from Swett's time at Duke. A classmate, Greg Wolf, was diagnosed with leukemia in late 2002 and died at 23, a little more than two years later.
Swett was reunited with the young man's father, a partner in a New York law firm, during the fall 2011 charity event that forms the backdrop for the story in The Times. The two hugged onstage after Swett "drummed up $30,000 in a round of direct pledging" during an evening that raised a total of $55,000 for the Greg Wolf Fund for cancer research.
"CK, you are awesome," a grateful George Wolf was heard to say.
The auction will be held at the Country Club of North Carolina, in Pinehurst, Saturday, Oct.. 6, from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m.
Tickets are $75 per person. For more information, call (910) 695-7510.
Brenda Bouser works for the corporate communications office of FirstHealth of the Carolinas.
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