Human Rights Watch and Christie’s: Two Auctions, Two Worlds


On the 12th of November, I attended Christie’s Magnificent Jewels Auction at the Hotel des Bergues. That same week, on Thursday the 14th of November, I volunteered at Human Rights Watch’s (HRW) annual dinner, the NGO’s greatest source of funding in the year, during which fundraising takes place in the form of a big auction. While Christie’s auction was about “Magnificent Jewels”, HRW auctioned paintings, wine, experiences like meeting celebrities or going on holiday, and particular projects that needed funding, like their program for health in Venezuela. This short paper will reflect on similarities and differences between the two processes, as they are both auctions but happen in a very different context.

By holding those events, both HRW and Christie’s had the same goal, to make or raise as much money as possible. However, the fact that the money was gathered for radically different purposes changed greatly the nature of the auction as well as the way it was run. While HRW was raising money in order to fund its operations, advocating for human rights around the world, Christie’s is a private organization and was thus organizing the auction for its own profit. As a result of those different purposes, Christie’s and HRW chose very different strategies in order to achieve the same goal, money-making.

Both organizations made the auction into a unique show, putting the auctioneer at the center of the process. However, the styles of both auctioneers were very different, illustrating the different sensibilities of HRW and Christie’s. On the one hand, HRW’s auction was arranged to be as entertaining as possible to guests, with the auctioneer frequently joking and often using humor during the bidding in order to incite guests to donate more. More detail was also given to the audience about each lot, and speakers came in several times to talk more in details about HRW’s cause. The strategy adopted therefore seemed to be to entertain guests as much as possible and ensuring their satisfaction with the dinner so that they would be willing to contribute more. On the other hand, Christie’s strategy to incite further bidding was focused on encouraging a buying frenzy by going very quickly from one lot to another and with the auctioneer talking constantly, always calling again on possible bidders.  As opposed to HRW’s auction, little time was spent describing lots, adopting a lighter tone or even taking breaks between lots. The goal seemed to be to maintain a dynamic atmosphere despite the huge amount of lots to be sold. Adopting a slower rhythm would surely prolong the auctions by hours, and lose the attention of possible buyers.

Human Rights Watch Auction, Marine Krieger, 14th of November 2019

Despite those differences in style, both auctioneers faced the same challenge related to the sensitivity of talking about money so openly, which is often perceived as inappropriate in social events. For HRW, the way to address this challenge was to keep its cause at the center of attention, while for Christie’s it was to enhance the high value of the artefacts on sale and the “high class” branding of the event. In both cases the auction holders aimed to reduce the audience’s notion of the value of their money and to minimize the focus on money while enhancing the competitive aspect of the auction, making it look like a game. This strategy was particularly successful at Christie’s auction where, despite of not participating in the auction myself, I soon felt like articles under 100,000 francs were only small prizes. Both auctioneers indeed often minimized the values raised for lots, although the HRW auctioneer did so in a more humorous way. In addition to this strategy, auctioneers both also tried to enhance the competition among bidders in order to push up the final sale price. It was particularly interesting to observe how Christie’s auctioneer often emphasized the difference between bidders in the room and those on the phone or on the internet. For lots where different bidders were physically or virtually present, the auctioneer built those groups against each other. He often gave the impression that bidders present in the room should win against those on the phone or online, like if they were to defend the traditional way auctions are held against contemporary evolutions. HRW’s auctioneers used the competitive aspect in a friendlier way and with humor, making the auction seem like a game.

Other common points are worth noting, such as the auctioneers’ practice to pretend they’re deciding the starting price at the last moment in order to make the auction process seem more instant and dynamic. The population attending both events would also be interesting to study, with an observable gender imbalance, but a relative diversity in terms of countries of origin, with some attendees coming to Geneva from abroad specially to attend those events.

However, the fundraising goal of HRW’s event led organizers to change the nature of the auction for some lots. Almost half of the lots were indeed non-competitive, meaning that everyone could donate to a specific project, like support for refugees with disabilities for example. These lots also served the purpose of making the event less about money and more about HRW’s cause. But at the same time, the nature of the auction also changed, turning it into a collaborative process among bidders, where the goal was to collectively raise enough money for a particular project to have funding for the whole year.

As a conclusion, it was interesting to see the same tool for money-making, the auction, being used for very different purposes. Although HRW and Christie’s faced the same challenges in order to make the auction profitable, they adopted different strategies to overcome them, which led the nature of their auctions to radically be different.


Marine Krieger

Author: GEN