Singer Lenny Kravitz performs on stage with Leonardo DiCaprio and Madonna

Lenny Kravitz performs at the 2017 Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation Gala, with DiCaprio (centre) and Madonna (right)

Whether painting, music or immersive experiences, artists – and the art they produce – play a huge role in raising hundreds of millions of dollars for some of the world’s most deserving charities, says art auctioneer and LUX contributing editor Simon de Pury
Portrait of world renowned art auctioneer, Simon de Pury

Simon de Pury

I’ve done the auction for the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation Gala for the past four years in St. Tropez. It has raised in excess of $100million for environmental issues. You know, we can try to save everything else, but if we don’t have a planet, there’s not much to save, so I find it very surprising that what should be probably our primary, main concern is just so low down the pecking order of people’s preoccupations. But Leo DiCaprio is probably the most important fundraiser for environmental issues in the world. It’s the longest auction of any auction that I do – people arrive at nine o’clock and it goes on till past 2am. So it’s a real marathon, because not only are there top artworks (he’s a very active collector, so all the artists donate their best works), but also experiences. There are once-in-a-lifetime experiences like going to the gym with Madonna or playing tennis with Federer.

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And the evening is interrupted by little musical intermezzos. So, last year Madonna gave a fantastic concert halfway through, and then the whole thing ended at 2.30am with an incredible concert by Lenny Kravitz. Once that was finished, the after-party kicked in with DJ Cassidy and there was the after-after-party at the home of Dmitry Rybolovlev. We were the first to leave at 7am. But the party was in full swing!

There’s more money in that tent than at any evening in New York. The combination between high-net-worth individuals – Russian oligarchs, people from the Middle East, former Soviet states, Latin America, America, Europe – mixed with top actors and top models, creates an electric, exciting atmosphere.

The other one that is very exciting is the amfAR Gala in Cannes, which always takes place at what I view as possibly the most beautiful hotel in the world: Hotel du Cap-Eden-Roc. The artworks are displayed in an incredible way. Coming out of the hotel, you see an alley leading down to the sea, and at the bottom of the alley is the star work of the auction. One year they had a Damien Hirst, the famous mammoth; another year, a huge sculpture by Jeff Koons. So, you can really show the works in a spectacular way, and once the guests come they all mingle on that beautiful alley.

The artist Joe Bradley – there is a long waiting list for his work, and he had a big show at Gagosian in Geneva – donated a really fantastic work for the auction. And it made €750,000, which is basically the price you have to pay if you’re lucky enough to be given the chance to buy one.

The other highlight of amfAR every year is when Carine Roitfeld curates a fashion show. And this year it was with 31 different designers, and she picks the theme, and she picks the dresses. One year it was all in gold; one year it was multicoloured; one year it was red. And then all these top models come down the stairs and walk up and down the catwalk and the stage with the most unbelievable music, and so it creates a fantastic atmosphere. And then, once all of the models are on stage, I come up and stand in front of them and start the auction. That’s by far my favourite moment as an auctioneer in any auction.

Supermodel Winnie Harlow poses at amFAR gala wearing a black and white dress

Supermodel Winnie Harlow at amfAR in Cannes this year

This year was the 25th anniversary of amfAR to raise money for Aids. Another Aids-related charity I’ve done auctions for is the Elton John Foundation. He invites 70 or so people to dinner in his home, outside London. It’s very intimate. He usually pairs up with another musician – John Mayer, Annie Lennox, Andrea Bocelli – and then he comes and plays himself. It’s really nice if you’re invited to a private dinner, so people pay a lot of money for their seat there – much more than they would for a larger gathering. During those evenings, we just sell three or possibly four items. So the main way of raising funds is people getting there.

The Elton John Foundation is one of the most effective foundations on the calendar in terms of research for Aids. He has been relentless for years and years with his Foundation, raising funds. It is remarkable just to see what he has done and how much he gives of his own persona, how much he gives of his own funds.

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For Aids there’s also the MTV RE:DEFINE annual charity auction. I do it every year in Dallas, in cooperation with the Goss-Michael Foundation, founded by George Michael and Kenny Goss. That is also a fun event because you always have each year an artist that is being honoured. This year it was Tracey Emin.

And the Robin Hood Foundation Benefit in New York raises the biggest amounts; you just have all these hedge-funders in the room and they say, ‘Now we’re going to put the numbers there… please put your pledges,’ and then bleep. ‘You’ve just raised $72million dollars, thank you so much.’

In terms of the cancer charities, there is Denise Rich, who founded Gabrielle’s Angels in New York. I do the Angel Ball auction every year. She takes the Cipriani Downtown, 650 people for a seated dinner. She had the whole Kardashian family coming last time – the whole family except Kim – and they are very close to her, which is very rare. One year she had Pharrell Williams performing and suddenly he said to me, “Simon, come on stage. I want to sell a dinner with me!” And all the women became crazy, screaming. Then Usher said, “I’ll join the dinner as well!” And that second impromptu auction raised more than the regular auction.

The Beyeler Foundation Summer Nights Gala in Basel, Switzerland, is the most original of any fundraiser, because director Sam Keller asks one artist to take over the whole museum and transform it for one night, which means that only as a guest do you get to see what the artist has done.

One year it was Olafur Eliasson and you arrived and everything was black and white, as if we were in a black and white movie. We sat down and started eating the food – black and white. It tastes bizarre when you don’t see the colours. Eliasson said, “Now you know what the world looks like without colour.” And then there was a total blackout and he said, “Look under your chair.” And everybody had this little lamp, and he switched a button and suddenly all the colour came back. The food started tasting very, very good the minute you saw the colour. It’s the most bizarre experience ever. He also did artworks just for that night, paintings all in different colours. All this was created just for the night.

I also love doing the New Museum Spring Gala in New York, because of the artists who attend. Very often you sell great art at these events, but you have no artists in the room – maybe one or two. But the New Museum event is carried by the artists. This year were three of my favourites – all women. Julie Mehretu, Cecily Brown and Elizabeth Peyton, who is my favourite portrait artist today. If you had to choose who would be your dream person to do your portrait, she would be top of my list, and the New Museum had shown a mid-career introspective of her. Besides that there was new work from Jeff Koons, from George Condo… there were something like 55 artists in the room.

In terms of the contemporary art world, the New Museum Spring Gala is possibly the most exciting one, because personally I always find that the most rewarding thing in terms of what we do is the contact with the artists themselves. Nothing is more stimulating. They have such a fresh way of looking at everything. And that’s what I love, because, after all, without the artists all the rest is meaningless.

Simon de Pury is an art auctioneer and collector and the founder of de Pury de Pury. Find out more: depurydepury.com