Alexander Nemerov, an art historian, says, “the work of art is not the artist, the artist is the work of art.” This means only the artist could make their art and thus is the epitome of originality. Today, when an artist’s work is sold at auction they typically receive half its selling price. This is highway robbery, considering that the artist spent hours making the piece in the first place – a tradition that is rumored to have started with the Scull auction.
The Price Of Everything, a documentary addressing how we value art, shows the moment when artist Robert Rauschenberg confronts art dealer Robert Scull. Scull was hosting his eponymous auction on October 18th, 1973. Scull had just sold a piece by Rauschenberg called Thaw (1958), for $85,000, after buying the work from Rauschenberg for only $900. An admittedly drunk Rauschenberg pushes Scull, asking him why he hadn’t sent him flowers. Scull was confused, asking Rauschenberg why he needed flowers. The artist pointed out the huge markup Scull received, saying, “I’ve been working my ass off for you to make that profit.” Scull scoffed, telling Rauschenberg that he was going to sell more paintings because of the enormous price and that he should be thrilled. This proved true. After the auction, Rauschenberg declared: “Robert Scull helped artists at a time there wasn’t enough activity to support them.” It’s worth noting that when Rauschenberg died, he was a very rich man.
After the auction, Rauschenberg declared: “Robert Scull helped artists at a time there wasn’t enough activity to support them.”
Robert and Ethel Scull began collecting in the mid-1950s, assembling one of the most astonishing collections of abstract expressionism and pop art ever compiled. At the time, there wasn’t a market for contemporary American art. Their funding came from a taxicab business founded by Ethel’s father, which was affectionately called ‘Scull’s Angels.’ Soon, pop art became the couple’s chief focus. The Sculls were known as the ‘Mom and Pop of pop’ in the New York social scene. The Scull auction was a turning point in art-world history. Bob Colacello, an American writer, noted that “people fought to get into Sotheby’s [the location of the Scull auction] the same way they would fight to get into Studio 54 years later… It really was the triumph of Pop.”
The Sculls were known as the ‘Mom and Pop of pop’ in the New York social scene.
The Sculls were responsible for Andy Warhol’s first commissioned portrait, Ethel Scull 36 Times (1963), valued at $135,000. Art historian Irving Sandler said that the 1973 auction, more than any other single event, “kicked off the market that we know today.” However, not everyone appreciated the sale. A group outside the show protested the fact that only one woman, Lee Bontecou, was featured in the auction. According to the article, How the Scull Sale Changed the Art Market, one protestor was photographed holding a sign that said, “never trust a rich hippie.”
Rauschenberg may have initially been angered by the auction’s profits, but other artists didn’t share his sentiments. Jasper Johns’ Double White Map, bought by the Sculls for $10,000, sold at the auction for $240,000. Where Rauschenberg saw hypocrisy, Johns saw a reason to party. According to a New York Times report, he and his entourage took a break from making lithographs to pop a bottle of champagne.
The Sculls were close friends with the artists whose works they collected, sometimes acting as financial backers for their work. For example, they were among the first to recognize the early conceptual art of Robert Morris, Walter De Maria and Bruce Nauman, showcasing a single work of each artist in the 1973 show. The Sculls also provided artists with stipends, bought them food and clothes, and even paid for their materials.
The Sculls also provided artists with stipends, bought them food and clothes, and even paid for their materials.
According to Judith Goldman, a poet and professor of English at the University of Buffalo, the auction was held when “conventional and cultural wisdom at the time was that these movements, abstract expressionism and pop, would never be taken seriously.” The Scull collection was formed at a time before art meant money.
The auction, held at Sotheby Parke Bernet in New York, showcased 50 paintings and sculptures by the most notable modern American artists of New York. According to New York Times journalist Fred Ferretti, European interest had traditionally remained with European artists. Similarly, Japanese buyers had typically only bought French impressionists (when they weren’t buying Japanese artists.) Before the Scull auction, there had only been sporadic interest by foreign art buyers in American artists. However, a public survey done in 1973 showed that the sale had aroused a following among English, Swiss, Japanese, and German customers.
According to Barbara Haskell, a curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Scull auction “established the idea that modern art could be a really effective money-making tool.” Prior to the Scull sale, auction houses had occasionally turned up the publicity for special shows, but the Sculls set a new standard for post-war and contemporary art. When Doug Woodham, author and art critic, described Robert Scull’s ability to market his shows, he said, “between the catalogue, the media campaign, the parties—I think Scull was really a master of generating publicity.” He went on to say, “and the art world saw the Scull auction and said, ‘this is how to do it.’”
“Between the catalogue, the media campaign, the parties—I think Scull was really a master of generating publicity.” [Woodham] went on to say, “and the art world saw the Scull auction and said, ‘this is how to do it.’”
In October 1973 Ferretti’s article, Works From Scull’s Collection Of New York Art Coon Auction, stated that the show set several monetary records. A 1905 Picasso called Jeure Homme au Bouquet, was sold to Galerie Beyeler for $720,000, shattering the previous record of $675,000. Henry Moore’s Nu Couché I sold for $360,000. This exceeded the Moore sales of the previous year by $100,000. In addition, Willem de Kooning’s Police Gazette was estimated to have sold for $150,000 to $200,000, when the highest grossing de Kooning had only sold for $45,000. Breaking records for other artist like Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns and Barnett Newman, the Scull auction reached a then unimaginable total of $2.2 million, or almost $12 million in today’s dollars.
Breaking records for other artist like Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns and Barnett Newman, the Scull auction reached a then unimaginable total of $2.2 million, or almost $12 million in today’s dollars.
The Sculls divorced in 1975, a split that resulted in an 11 year haggling war over ownership of the collection. Ethel was finally awarded 35% of the art in 1986. A few months before the court ruling, Robert Scull died of diabetes complications at age 68. The Scull collection spread over three generations, collecting American art from abstract expressionism, to pop and contemporary. After Robert Scull died, an estate sale of the collection allowed the public to view what he and Ethel owned.
In 2010, Judith Goldman organized an exhibition for the Scull collection at Acquavella Galleries. She selected key works from major museums and private collectors. The exhibition showed the work of 23 artists, including Larry Poons, Lee Bontecou, Peter Young, Andy Warhol, and the Sculls’s favorite, Jasper Johns. (A large portion of the Scull collection is still available for viewing at Acquavella Galleries, located at 18 East 79th street.)
A few weeks ago, I visited the Whitney Museum of American Art, looking for a particular piece from the Scull collection. I arrived at 5:30pm, hoping to beat the crowd. I was in luck. There was no line outside, and after showing my bag to the security guard at the door, I got in with ease. The line inside was short and moved rather swiftly. While waiting, I saw Fab 5 Freddy behind me. I was surprised that a person so famous would be waiting in the same line as me and not somehow be rushed in through a secret celebrity door. I was around six or seven years old when I saw the classic graffiti film Wild Style, but I can still remember the scenes he was in, and his iconic show Yo! MTV Raps.
I got my ticket, checked my book bag at coat check, and took an elevator to the third floor. The exhibit was called Andy Warhol- From A to B and Back Again. (It was ending soon, and I wanted to visit before it was over.) I was looking for Warhol’s Ethel Scull 36 Times. It wasn’t on the third floor, so I got back on the elevator to the fifth floor, where I hit the mother lode – most of his works on display were there. In fact, the entire floor was dedicated to him. I perused room after room, searching for the piece. I saw his painting of Marilyn Monroe, but not the one I was looking for. I almost lost faith. In the last room I entered, the piece was hanging on the front wall closest to the door. I had finally found it. It was much larger than I had expected. It was 80 by 144 inches and took up the entire wall.
Legend says that Warhol took Ethel Scull to a photo booth off 42nd street in Manhattan. Scull had expected to be professionally photographed in a studio, and was confused when he took her to one of those machines you put quarters in. Despite its simplicity, the shoot was a success, capturing various animated, and even flirtatious, poses of Scull. I loved the piece. It showcases Scull’s youthfulness in almost every color on the spectrum. I took several pictures, walked around to see a few other pieces I had missed, and left the museum. Mission accomplished! When I got outside, I realized I was leaving at the opportune moment. There was a long line of people trying to get in during the discounted hours, and it would soon be a packed house, making it harder to get a picture of such a large infamous piece.
I was happy to see a piece from the Scull collection, and it was a thrill to see other pieces by Warhol. The Scull auction revived the debate over whether artists should receive royalties on sales of their work. A year after the show, art historian Robert Hughes, suggested there should be a federally legislated resale program that would guarantee artists’ royalties. Hughes wrote, “the hitch in an informal royalty system is simple: anyone who thinks a collector will voluntarily give a 15% cut on resale back to the artist simply does not know collectors.” He went on to say, “if there are to be any royalty assurances, then, they can only work if they are written into U.S. law.”
In my research, it was unclear if the Scull auction had anything to do with artists receiving half of the selling price at auctions today. However, it is clear that American contemporary art and auction sales would not be what they are today if it were not for Robert and Ethel Scull.