How the 1973 Scull Auction Changed the Art Market Forever

Significant cultural change can usually be traced back to a single catalyst - a unique individual or defining moment that rewrites the perception of what’s normal for those to come. In the case of the contemporary art market, it was the actions of a single art collector in New York City on October 18, 1973, that according to Doug Woodham in his book Art Collecting Today “heralded the beginning of the new art market and paved the way for the hyper-commercialised art market focused on promoting and selling contemporary art”.

Ethel Scull 36 Times by Andy Warhol

Ethel Scull 36 Times was painted by Andy Warhol as a gift to Ethel Scull, one of his most prolific collectors during the late 60s and early 70s. © Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts

Almost bankrupted the Vietnam war and in the grip of financial recession, New York in 1973 was a city in decline. Once imposing and elegant buildings stood derelict; parks semi-abandoned and decrepit looking; and hoodlums and prostitutes roamed the filthy streets and graffiti covered subways - a stark comparison to the vision of mainstream America portrayed by the media.

Almost bankrupted after the Vietnam war and in the grip of financial recession, New York in 1973 was a city in decline. It’s once imposing and elegant buildings stood derelict, the parks semi-abandoned and decrepit looking, and hoodlums and prostitutes roamed the filthy streets and graffiti covered subways; a stark comparison to the vision of mainstream America portrayed by the media.

The few art galleries that were in existence were huddled around 57th st and the upper east side, still championed by the idealistic dealers from “good ol’ days” of the art world, who catered for the privileged few with the means and desire to collect contemporary art.

Robert Scull, the protagonist of our narrative, was born on the lower east side in 1916 to Russian-Jewish parents. He began his life with humble beginnings, and during the depression dropped out of school eary to take odd jobs and help his family make ends meet. In his spare time he took art classes to help put food on the table as a freelance illustrator and industrial designer.

New Yurk Subway Graffiti 1973

New York City subway graffiti in 1973. Photo by Erik Calonius / EPA.

Despite his meager success early on, Robert married well. His wife Ethel’s family owned and operated a Taxi fleet company called Super Operating Corporation. When his wife’s father died they inherited a share of the company, which proved very lucrative and enabled the couple to live the high life of glamorous parties and art collecting, centered around their apartment located across the street from the Metropolitan Museum of Art at 1010 Fifth Avenue.

What Robert lacked in raw artistic talent, he made up for with his excellent marketing skills which he used to turn the taxi company into a household name in New York. He rebranded the Super Operating Corporation as Sculls Angels with a distinctive logo, and did series radio and TV commercials as well a number of well conceived PR stunts that made him a favourite among local reporters. He even hired Amy Vanderbelt, and expert in etiquette, to teach his drivers customer courtesy.

Robert and Ethel’s financial success enabled them to vigorously pursue their primary passion of collecting contemporary art. They befriended artists and supported their careers even when others weren’t buying their work. Their patronage provided them with access to the best work their artist friends produced, as well as insider tips on who to follow.

Robert’s first love was Abstract Expressionism, and by 1965 the couple acquired some 30 works from artists including Willem de Kooning, Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko, Franz Kline and others. The Scull’s first auction sale, of a dozen works, was held in 1965. The proceeds went to establish the Robert and Ethel Scull Foundation, with the purpose of raising money to encourage unknown artists, and also paved the way for their next love affair; Pop Art. With the help of art dealer Leo Castelli, the Sculls befriended and acquired works from Pop Artists including Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Claes Oldenburg, James Rosenquist and a list of others.

By the seventies the Scull’s had assembled a singular collection of art over about 20 years, and were figures of no small celebrity in the New York art world and social scene. Their legendary posturing and overt flaunting of their phenomenal art collection gave the couple a certain infamy, but didn’t hurt their rise within the social ranks either. Tom Wolfe, author of Bonfire of the Vanities once described the couple as “the folk heroes of every social climber who ever hit New York”. Later, when Robert was asked by an interviewer about accusations that he and his wife bought art for investment and for social-climbing, he replied: “It’s all true. I’d rather use art to climb than anything else.”.

Robert and Ethel Scull with Andy Worhol

Andy Warhol photographed with art collectors Ethel and Robert Scull, sculptor George Segal, and painter James Rosenquist at the Scull's residence in 1973. Photo by Jack Mitchell / Getty Images

Sometime in 1973, Robert Scull decided to sell a sizeable part of his collection. He selected fifty artworks, and titled the sale “A Selection of Fifty Works from the Collection of Robert C Scull”. It was to be the first ever blockbuster sale of contemporary art, and given Robert’s flare for publicity, it was sure not to disappoint. Robert negotiated a sale agreement with Sotheby’s, which at the time was the only auction house in town with the clout to host a sale at this level. The sale agreement also involved a guarantee which, back then, was considered a risky move by Sotheby’s who only used guarantees selectively to win consignments for Old Masters, not contemporary work by living artists. Nevertheless, a deal was signed and Scull and Sotheby’s wasted no time in spearheading a massive PR campaign. A lavish catalogue was prepared in the form of a hardbound book, with multiple foldout pages illustrating the works. Presale exhibitions were held in Switzerland and many other locations, followed by a number of parties when the works went on display at Sotheby’s Madison Ave location on October 12. When the Sotheby’s first announced the auction, many people were furious with the Sculls blatant profiteering and the auction house’s exploitation of artists. The New York art world saw the event as déclassé; the “nouveaux riches cashing in”.

The night of the auction drew a crowd that jammed Madison Square garden, including scores of local artists and activists who turned out to protest outside the entrance to Sotheby’s, greeting collectors with chants, banners and picket signs that poured scorn on the notion of art being just for the privileged few. The Sculls arrived in a chauffeur driven taxi, with Ethel wearing a black dress emblazoned with the Sculls Angels logo. Documentary makers, Scott and Vauhn, captured the whole spectacle and more behind the scenes footage in their film, America’s Pop Collector: Robert C Scull.

It was a collection that was bought for a song, and sold to the tune of $2.2 million.

Barbara Rose for the New York Magazine

Once the auction proceedings began it took about one hour for all the lots to sell. Cheers and hoots of excitement erupted from the crowd when lot after lot sold for record prices. More spectacular still was the disparity between what the Sculls had initially paid for the works, in some cases only a few years prior to the sale, and the prices they commanded at auction: Jasper Johns’s Double White Map, bought in 1965 for around $10,000, sold for $240,000. Robert Rauschenberg, who had sold his 1958 work Thaw to the Sculls for $900 and now saw it bring in $85,000. When a Twombly, originally purchased for $750 went for $40,000, Ethel reportedly leaned over and elbowed her husband “Remember when I bought that for your birthday? That was some birthday present!”. The common question murmured throughout the crowd after the hammer fell each time was “What did he pay for that one?”. In total the sale brought in $2.2 million, just above the high estimate, along with stunning evidence that the value of 1960s art would rise exponentially.

In a press conference after the auction an enraged Rauschenberg took a swing at Scull, hollering “I’ve been working my ass off for you to make a profit”. To this Robert replied “I’ve been working for you too”, and explained that he hoped the higher prices would eventually rebound back to the artist. Rauschenberg sentiment was echoed by artists across the art world demanded to know where their cuts would come from if art was fetching these kind of prices.

The Scull sale had, for better or worse, proved convincingly that contemporary art was a bankable commodity and could be bought and sold for immense financial gain. This triggered a frenzy in the arts world, with hungry entrepreneurs scrambling for their piece of the pie, and angered puritans protesting and lamenting that “the art world is dead”. Since then the art market has been on a seemingly unstoppable upward trajectory, slowing only temporarily to catch it’s breath during the odd recession or market crash, then right back on track to emerge bigger and stronger than before. The astronomical figures reported by Christie’s say it all, with their record breaking $691.5 million auction in 2013, and $4 billion in sales recorded in the first half of 2018 alone - up 26% from the same period in 2017.

Thankfully the charade involving the big money speculators who drive the hyper-inflated prices at the top end of the market is not as all pervasive as commercial media would have us believe, nor is not representative of the art world as a whole. The lower end of the market is as strong as it’s ever been, with emerging artists’ work high in demand, and the love and appreciation for “art for art’s sake” is still very much alive in the hearts of the artists, gallerists and collectors that give the arts world it’s true pulse.