From fridge doors to bidding wars

Student artwork proves a hot item at schools' fundraising auctions


It's oblong and ceramic, the size of a turkey platter, glazed a shimmering turquoise. Green, red and yellow objects suggesting pieces of fruit adorn the rim all the way around, though none has managed the full transition from clay to pear or apple slice that the artist seems to have intended.

Beth McFadden inspects the spanking-new objet naif in the light of her office as a jeweler might a diamond.

"How can you put a price on something like this?" she says, sighing and shaking her head.

In a sense, McFadden, the development director at Ruxton Country School, is posing the same question great minds have pondered through the ages: What price art? But her answer will have to be more practical than philosophical. During this, the high season of the private and public school fundraiser, getting above market value for treasures large and small is one way schools make money to support scholarship and other programs.

While schools auction ever more elaborate prizes, it's student art - which might normally end up stashed in a cabinet or stuck to a refrigerator door - that stirs the most frenzied interest, drawing prices that most of these amateur painters, ceramicists and sculptors probably will never command again.

Bidding war

Barbara Fink admits she wouldn't have bothered with the piece had she seen it at a gallery - a mirror framed with nautically themed ceramic pieces. But it was the work of Loni - the artist otherwise known as her daughter - and the rest of her seventh-grade class at Ruxton, a private school in Owings Mills.

"They say beauty's in the eye of the beholder?" Fink says. "Beauty's in the eye of the mommy."

But beauty was also in the eye of a twentysomething Ruxton alumna, who fell in love with the same mirror at last year's fundraiser.

"She was decorating her first apartment," Fink says, trying not to groan. "The second she saw it, she loved it."

Mom vs. decorator: A bidding war began. The action started at $50, vaulted past $100, eclipsed $200.

Fink found herself hovering near the silent-auction book, where bids are entered. Her adversary matched her, offer for offer. Twenty-five times, like boxers swapping body blows, each answered the other as the clock ran out.

"I looked her in the eye and told her how much it meant to me," she says. "She didn't care."

The alum's bid of $450, the highest for an art piece in years, became part of the $2,000 brought in by art on an evening that netted about $100,000 toward financial aid and teacher education.

Fink might have been outbid last year, but she will be back this year. In fact, she's co-chairing the auction committee; it's part of the school's annual fundraising gala, a black-tie affair this Saturday dubbed "Ruxton Renaissance."

She has snapped something up every year since her son, Scott, now in fifth grade, was a first-grader and she outbid a gaggle of parents for a floor cloth he helped paint.

It's in the basement now - but not because it's unattractive, she says: "He's my son. I'm his mother. It's handsome."

So Fink has a warning for that woman who beat her out for the mirror last year.

"If [that alumna] gets near my daughter's project this year," she says, smiling thinly, "I'll have to hunt her down."

School support

Not every school sees competition over art - friendly though it may be - as advisable. At the Park School, which displays student work in campus galleries year-round, teachers are wary of putting price tags on art, though on rare occasions students will donate finished works to school auctions, where such prizes as beach-resort weekends, evenings on the town in New York, opera tickets and autographed sports memorabilia can fetch thousands. A decade back, a bidder at D.C.'s Sidwell Friends School even ponied up $76,000 for a round of golf with President Bill Clinton, whose daughter, Chelsea, was a student at the time.

At times, art teachers at Gilman and Roland Park Country schools have brokered deals at student shows between interested buyers and student exhibitors.

Auctions aren't just for the private-school set, though. Few schools of any stripe can likely top Triadelphia Ridge Elementary School in Ellicott City, which routinely earns $25,000 or more at auctions that benefit its PTA. Pupil-made art accounts for more than half.

Few bidders have been more zealous than Dawn Shaw.

The mother of three Triadelphia Ridge pupils past and present, Shaw has cheerfully doled out more than $25,000 since 1997, including $4,900 for two apparently ordinary ceramic bowls this year. (Her twin sons, Alex and Steven, helped make them.) She has never lost an auction.

Her motivation? Supporting a school system whose teachers have been dedicated enough to show her children individualized attention. "What they've given us has been priceless," she says.

But something about the auctions heightens her magnanimity. She calls it a fever.

"You just don't want to lose," she says. "Once you get going, you'd be surprised at what starts to sound reasonable."

`Team efforts'

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