MANHATTAN — What do a Picasso and an heirloom tomato have in common?
They're both works of art, in the eyes of Amy Todd Middleton, Sotheby's worldwide director of marketing. And they've both been sold at the famously elite Upper East Side auction house.
Sotheby's is hosting the second annual "Art of Farming" event Sept. 27 where 10 crates filled with such heirloom fruit and vegetable varieties as Iroquois cantaloupes, Aunt Molly's ground cherries, muncher cucumbers and Benning's green tint patty pan squash will be auctioned for for $1,000 each.
The crates will then be donated to community food programs in the city as part of the event, which is a fundraiser to support local agriculture and sustainable food practices.
Perhaps it's not such a stretch for the auction house to play host for an event for heirloom edibles.
"What we do is sell antiques and heirlooms and works of art," Middleton said of Sotheby's usual schedule. "Farming and the fruit it gives are works of art themselves. Just as everything we sell is one-of-a-kind, no two heirloom vegetables are the same."
Tickets, which cost $500, include a cocktail reception with local hors d’oeuvres by restaurant Rouge Tomate and wines by New York wineries. It will be followed by a farm-to-table family-style dinner at long communal tables with dishes using heirloom vegetables whose seeds for such varieties as Schoon's hard shell melons and easter egg radishes have been passed from generation to generation and were grown especially for the evening by 25 local farmers.
Dan Kluger, executive chef of ABC Kitchen — which won the James Beard Award for Best New Restaurant — is curating the dinner, which will include his handiwork alongside Alexandra Guarnaschelli of Butter, Bill Telepan of Telepan, Mark Meyer of Cookshop, among others.
Last year's event raised more than $250,000 for to help GrowNYC's New Farmer Development Project supporting immigrants starting up small farms in the New York region and the Sylvia Center, a program aimed to inspire young people to discover good nutrition at Katchkie Farm and in a Hudson Square kitchen, Middleton said.
"I think the dinner is going to be fabulous," said Marcel Van Ooyen, executive director of GrowNYC, which runs the city's greenmarkets. "I'm looking forward to strapping on my feed bag and going to town."
He was excited that the popularity of the local food movement had reached the refined auction house.
"In the past, the only fruit auctioned off was painted by Dutch masters," he said. "People have been painting farms and fruit and vegetables for hundreds of years. Why not auction off the real stuff and support farmers in the process?"
Also on the auction block will be celebrity chef dinners, wine country getaways and summer farm internships for students.
"There is an element that is very serious and an element that is very fun," Middleton said of the event. "Most important is to get people to acknowledge and recognize the need to maintain diversity and variety in our local resources."
Heirlooms help preserve the genetic diversity of food crops, she said. Without that diversity — which is rapidly disappearing — food production is at higher risk of falling to infestations and epidemics.
Middleton developed the "Art of Farming" with Brent Ridge of Beekman 1802— who shes says grows 125 heirloom varieties on his farm — and Liz Neumark from the catering company Great Performances and Katchkie Farm, a 60-acre organic farm in Columbia County.
On Tuesdays in the month leading up to the event and on the day of the event itself, Sotheby's will be hosting a farmers market in front of its building on York Avenue, between East 71st and 72nd streets, run by city youth in collaboration with GrowNYC.
The hope is that the youth market will "build momentum for the event," Middleton said.
"The teens are going to get a big treat being in front of that building selling vegetables," Van Ooyen added.
"The story of food goes through all levels of society now," he said. "We're going to reach $1 million of food stamps used at farmers markets. From that to Sotheby's having an event on heirlooms — as this gets more and more integrated into people's thoughts, they'll eat healthier and support local agriculture. It's good for everyone."