Richard Gere looked around Sotheby's auction house at a roomful of some of the wealthiest, most famous and possibly best-looking people in New York City. Singer Debbie Harry strolled by wearing a mod Stephen Sprouse outfit. Bianca Jagger, tucked into a tight strapless black minidress, stood near a suntanned Dick Cavett. Despite the glitter, Gere's assessment of the scene was grim. "Everyone in this room," he said, "has friends who have died of or will die of AIDS."

As at most benefits, the luminaries attending the Art Against AIDS fund raiser were the focus of press attention. But this time, Gere, Jagger and others who usually run from reporters stood their ground to explain why they attended. "I'm not a doctor," said Matt Dillon, "but if I can get people to think about this, maybe that will do some good." Added Jagger: "People try to pretend that only minority groups get AIDS. But this is a nondiscriminatory disease."

The Sotheby's party was a kickoff for what will probably be the most lucrative private campaign yet for AIDS research. Hundreds of artists, including such top painters as Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and Roy Lichtenstein, and 72 galleries agreed to donate a large percentage or all of the price on 600 works to be sold by the end of the year. Since a single painting by Jackson Pollock has been priced at $1.6 million, and other donations, including works by Picasso and Andy Warhol, should bring large sums, the final collection may well exceed $5 million. "The art world put politics aside for a change," says Susan Martin, an arts publicist who got the idea for a benefit after she heard that two friends had AIDS. "Competitive galleries even lent works to each other."

After cocktails at Sotheby's, paired-off celebrities led the guests through the rain to 10 separate dinner parties at some of the city's toniest restaurants. At each were a couple of dozen contributors who had donated $500 apiece to join such hosts as Tatum O'Neal, Susan Sarandon and Raul Julia. Sean Lennon, 11, dined with his mom, Yoko Ono, and Sam Havadtoy at Cafe Luxembourg. "Kids in my school—every time we hear about a new way you might get AIDS, we talk about it," he said. "From what I've heard you have to get it through sexual relations. I'm only in sixth grade. We don't have too much of that."

The event did not entirely transcend the status game. Unwilling to give up their super-snobby admissions policy just for a good cause, the doormen at Nell's nightclub turned away at least one invited guest. Those who couldn't get into Nell's and some who did headed at midnight to the Tunnel nightclub. Along with Liza Minnelli and Matt Dillon, among others, the art insiders shmoozed and listened to performances by composer Philip Glass and pop singer Barbara Cook.

By the end it looked like any other gala. But the partygoers had already established their priorities earlier in the evening. At Sotheby's they had hailed Dr. Mathilde Krim, founding chair of the American Foundation for AIDS Research, which has already received more than $1,000,000 from the art sale campaign. Krim and Elizabeth Taylor both spoke passionately about AIDS. Only the doctor received bravas.