Chicago's eBay auction raises $242,000

Friday, December 24, 2004

CHICAGO -- Going, going, gone! The opportunity to dye the Chicago River green on St. Patrick's Day goes to the highest bidder for $7,600.

The city's eBay auction of Chicago-specific experiences and treasures ended Wednesday night after raising more than $242,000 for arts and cultural programs during a time of government spending cuts.

The top bid was $21,000 for a wedding package that included catering for 100 in the city's ornate Chicago Cultural Center overlooking Michigan Avenue.

A dinner for 10 with television broadcaster Bill Kurtis -- accompanied by a documentary about the winning bidder's life -- went for $18,600, making it the second biggest draw of the auction. A fiberglass "moollennium cow" from the Cows on Parade exhibit went for $8,100. The chance to turn on Chicago's Buckingham Fountain: $3,026.

Chicago Fire Sale

"The auction not only brought in much needed funding for the arts but helped to showcase Chicago to an international audience," said Lois Weissberg, commissioner of the Department of Cultural Affairs, which organized the event.

The auction, dubbed the Great Chicago Fire Sale, began Dec. 2. Almost 500 items up for sale attracted 6,343 bids, said Anne Dattulo, a department spokeswoman.

Not all the items were big sellers. A collection of 36 posters of religious leaders in the Chicago area attracted only two bids and sold for $11.50, and a 1960s-era Playboy Bunny costume went for its minimum bid of $6,000.

While the $242,210.48 raised will help the city's programs, it won't come close to making up for the government funding city cultural programs have lost in recent years.

The cultural affairs department has seen its overall budget from federal, state and city sources decline by about $3 million over the past three years, from $11.8 million in 2002 to $8.8 million next year, Dattulo said.

The auction proceeds will help three nonprofit groups that normally get the bulk of their money from the department: the Chicago Cultural Center Foundation, which presents more than 1,000 free fine arts programs to the public each year; Gallery 37, which provides job training in the arts to children and teens; and Cultural Grants, which awards funding to hundreds of Chicago artists and arts organizations each year.

Other cities and states have used eBay to sell surplus equipment, and charities regularly use the auction site to sell items or experiences.

But eBay says the Chicago sale was unique because the money is being directed back to specific city programs and the city not only contributed some of the items but also encouraged residents to donate as well.

The dinner with Bill Kurtis was purchased by Tom Crane Jr. of Crestwood and his three brothers as a present for their father. Tom Crane Sr. is a Kurtis fan who has "lived a very interesting life" that the family is eager to document, his son said.

"I watched (the auction) until the last three minutes when I got involved. I didn't think it could go that high in three minutes and then it just went boom, boom, boom," Tom Crane Jr. said. "Did we go past what we expected to pay? The answer is yes. But today I have no regrets."

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