PINEHURST – 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.
Duke University graduate CK Swett, now a senior proposal writer for Phillips de Pury & Company, an international art auction house in New York, will be the celebrity auctioneer for the 17th Annual FirstHealth Hospice Foundation Pottery Auction. The signature fundraiser supporting the work of FirstHealth Hospice & Palliative Care will be held Saturday, Oct. 6, at the Country Club of Pinehurst.
Swett, she learned, is a senior proposal writer for Phillips de Pury & 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. “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 & Palliative Care, the only not-for-profit hospice service in Moore County.
Proceeds from the Pottery Auction cover operational deficits for FirstHealth Hospice, which serves Moore and Montgomery counties, ensuring that anyone who needs hospice services can receive that care with dignity and respect – regardless of their ability to pay.
According to the story in The Times, 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.”
“A 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.
Flamboyant in style and appearance
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.
17th Annual Pottery Auction
|Tickets are $75 per person. For more information, call (910) 695-7510.|
Biltmore tour, Open tickets, Chairman’s Choice and more to highlight live auction
George Washington Vanderbilt II planned his 250-room Biltmore Estate in North Carolina as a summer getaway, but it is known today as one of the grandest residences in the U.S. and a prime example of the nation’s Gilded Age.
The 175,000-square-foot structure took six years to build and is still owned by one of Vanderbilt’s descendants, but it was permanently opened to the public in 1956, became a National Historic Landmark in 1964 and now reigns as one of the premier tourist attractions in the Southeast.
On Saturday, Oct. 6, a VIP tour of the house and 75 acres of grounds will be featured as a live auction item at the 17th Annual FirstHealth Hospice Pottery Auction. Celebrity auctioneer CK Swett of New York will lead the live auction component of the Hospice Foundation fundraiser that is scheduled for 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. at the Country Club of North Carolina.
A variety of items will highlight the event, including “The Big Lollipop,” the Chairman’s Choice piece from Dean & Martin Pottery of Seagrove. Potter Jeff Martin created the large piece of local stoneware – featuring his recognizable lollipop design – out of regional clays from Montgomery County’s STARworks.
Other items to be sold under Swett’s auctioneering auspices will include:
The successful bidder on the Biltmore offering will be able to claim his/her two-day getaway for two Sunday through Thursday only from April 1 to June 30, 2013, or any time from Jan. 3 to March 31, 2013. The certificate includes a deluxe room with one king-sized or two double beds at the Biltmore Inn as well as a behind-the-scenes tour of the Biltmore House and Gardens and Antler Hill Village; a welcome amenity upon room check-in; a private winery tour and tasting; and estate transportation.