The 1973 Scull auction was a harbinger of today’s market, but its meaning is still misunderstood

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Although art professionals have been pummelled for months by reminders that 2023 marks 50 years since Picasso’s death, it’s not the most consequential golden anniversary in the art market this year. To me, that honour goes to the (in)famous auction of 50 works by living American artists from the collection of New York taxicab magnates Robert and Ethel Scull, staged on 18 October 1973 at the Madison Avenue headquarters of Sotheby Parke-Bernet (which shopping mall kingpin A. Alfred Taubman acquired and rebranded as Sotheby’s one decade later).

“The Scull sale”, as it is colloquialised today, has since become accepted among many, if not most, knowledgeable art sellers as a moment when the future of the trade arrived. Although this reputation is ultimately justified, the 50th anniversary also represents an opportunity to untangle the outsized mythology the sale has accumulated from the more complex reality it entailed. Doing so reveals the auction was still a harbinger of what was to come in the art business—just not quite to the extent people tend to believe.

For the uninitiated, the auction involved the Sculls offering 50 pieces they had acquired on the primary market since the 1950s, by a selection of artists that ranged from pioneers of Abstract Expressionism to rising stars of Pop art. In many cases, the artists in question were not only living but also still relatively young; Lee Bontecou, Jasper Johns, Claes Oldenburg, James Rosenquist and Andy Warhol, all of whom had at least one work go under the hammer that night, were then between the ages of 39 and 45.

The sale as a whole made more than $2.2m with fees and set multiple auction records for individual artists and works of various classifications. In the process, the consensus holds, it also solidified a new art world order in which canny speculation on artists in their twenties and thirties could pay off tremendously within ten to 20 years, popularising the practice of rapid resale for “wet paint” artists.

Yet the Scull sale is remembered as much for its controversy as for its commerce, best encapsulated in a post-auction confrontation between Rauschenberg and Robert Scull captured by a documentary film crew. The incident involved the artist accusing the collector of profiting undeservedly off his hard work in the studio, and Scull knowingly retorting that he and Rauschenberg actually “work for each other”, since the artist’s primary-market prices would only benefit from his impressive public auction results.

Still, the energy around the auction skewed more positive than negative, largely thanks to innovative marketing by Scull and Sotheby Parke-Bernet. The auction house produced a lavish catalogue on the 50 lots in the sale and toured the works to Europe in the weeks leading up to the big night; both of these were exceptional when it came to auctioning works of contemporary art at the time. Ethel Scull arrived to the evening sale wearing a Halston gown customised with the logo of the family’s taxi company, Scull’s Angels, simultaneously burnishing the brand and trolling the taxi drivers protesting the Sculls’ opulent lifestyle outside. And then there was that documentary crew recording everything.

“To sell paintings at auction, you have to be a bit of a marketing genius,” says Lisa Dennison, Sotheby’s chairman, Americas. “[Robert] Scull was a marketing genius.”

All these aspects sound thoroughly modern: the anxiety over the commoditisation of contemporary art, the frustrations with the lack of an artist’s resale royalty in the US and the multi-pronged marketing blitz engineered to boost the sale. No wonder recent analysis of these themes tends to cast the Scull sale as an instant turning point for the trade. But the historical record suggests the changes it presaged were both more modest and slower-arriving than they appear in the rear-view mirror.

Hits, misses and sure things

Again, the main reason we remember the 1973 Scull auction was its achievement of huge prices for many of the still-breathing artists whose work crossed the block. By making $240,000, Jasper Johns’s Double White Map (1965) became the most expensive work by a living American artist, the most expensive work of Pop art and the most expensive work by any American artist in the 20th-century. Painted Bronze, Johns’s 1960 sculpture of two Ballantine Ale cans, became the priciest sculpture by a living American artist at $90,000. The auction also delivered new artist records for Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, Larry Poons, Rauschenberg and James Rosenquist, according to the next day’s New York Times recap of the auction.

Still, a deeper dive into the contemporaneous reporting on the Scull sale shows that it also anticipated the evening sales of our era in its unevenness. Although the premium-inclusive $2,242,900 brought that night established a new high for an auction of works of contemporary American art, a meditation by the writer Alexander Cockburn in The Village Voice reveals that the total only landed in the middle of the presale estimate range of $1.85m to $2.5m (calculated without fees).

The New York Times recap further punctures the Sculll sale’s reputation as a wire-to-wire success, calling it “disappointing in several aspects” and adding: “Most of the items put up for sale failed to reach the expected maximums estimated by Sotheby Parke-Bernet, and many of them failed to reach expected minimums, and there were scattered ‘Ohs’ and ‘Ahs’ as many of these pieces went under the hammer.”

Cockburn, who attended the auction, details some of these lesser results. The third lot, a John Chamberlain polyurethane sculpture, went for $1,400 against a target of $4,000 to $6,000. Aside from the aforementioned De Kooning record-setter, the other two paintings by the artist in the sale sold for $60,000 and $80,000, both “well under their estimates”. A Bontecou assemblage went for $7,500—just beneath its $8,000 low estimate—and an Oldenburg sculpture also sold for “less than expected”. (After the sale, Cockburn writes, a source at Sotheby Parke-Bernet alleged that five of the 50 lots actually passed, but spokespeople for the auction house “categorically deny this”.)

Yet these disappointing moments had less of a negative effect on the Sculls than people might realise. Why? Because ahead of the sale, they had done something else that both set the template for later generations of consignors and slightly undercut the mythology of the 1973 auction’s success: negotiated for the house to pay a financial guarantee for all 50 lots.

Although guarantees were already a part of the auction sector’s modus operandi by October 1973, at that time the houses generally only agreed to pay them for major works by European Old Masters. If the Sculls were not the first collectors to secure one for works by living artists, they were almost certainly the first to secure one for such a large group of works by living artists. The amount of the guarantee was not publicised, just as in such deals today, but Cockburn does assert at the end of his piece that Scull “received a check for around $1m” from the sale, while Sotheby Parke-Bernet “made something more than $200,000 on the evening’s activity”.

The larger point is this: The Scull sale proved the secondary market was running hot for living post-war artists from multiple movements. But that outcome was still uncertain enough to convince the Sculls that they were better off accepting a sure thing than risking a potential disaster in hopes of an even bigger payday.

Oracle or outlier?

The 1973 Scull auction lives on in art market history as the apotheosis of high-end commerce transformed into a VIP social event. So many spectators arrived that Sotheby Parke-Bernet had to ease them into the building in groups of ten, with most having to be seated in overflow rooms equipped with TVs simulcasting the proceedings in the main gallery—a setup Dennison of Sotheby’s calls “the first livestream, in a way”.

Despite the auction houses’ best efforts, however, in retrospect the event is less a template-setter than an apex that has rarely, if ever, been reached again.

“Now it’s in large part the trade and then the people secreted up in skyboxes,” Dennison says of the crowds at major evening sales. “You come and do your duty and get out to have dinner by 8 o’clock.”

Powerful as Scull and Sotheby Parke-Bernet’s marketing was in driving the jet set to the auction room, Cockburn’s contemporaneous account of the sale suggests the excitement was short-lived for anyone without a financial stake in the proceedings. After Johns’s White Map sold for a record $240,000, Cockburn writes, the inconvenient truth of the auction settled on those assembled: “On and on we go: a bored pall descends. Everyone realises it is a matter of listening to a cash register for an hour.”

This reality check of the mood necessitates another about the sale’s ultimate legacy. Although the Scull auction has been mythologised in hindsight as the market event that legitimised high-dollar, rapid resales of works by living artists, the truth is more complicated—whether you look further back from 18 October 1973, or further forward.

To the first point, it’s not uncommon for people in the trade to miscast the Scull sale as the first time a collector ever used an auction house to offer lots by artists still drawing breath. This is “simply not true”, says Olav Velthuis, a professor at the University of Amsterdam specialising in economic sociology. The earliest modern example, he says, is probably the sale of works owned by the Peau de l’ours (Skin of the bear) consortium—now considered the first art fund—at the Parisian auction house Drouot in 1914.

In fact, the Sculls had previously sold pieces by living artists, albeit at a much smaller scale, in two auctions prior to 1973: a 1965 sale comprising 12 works that brought a combined $165,000 (the proceeds of which went to establishing the Robert and Ethel Scull Foundation), and a 1970 sale of four works that made $197,000 in total.

Looking forward from the 1973 Scull auction, there is also little, if any, evidence that other collectors of contemporary art rushed to follow in the couple’s footsteps. “It did not mean that the next season we saw this and that estate” at auction, says Dennison of the sale’s success. Velthuis adds that the 1973 Scull auction “surely did not trigger a whole series of comparable sales soon afterwards”. The most proximate examples he could offer were the 1988 auction of select contemporary works from the Burton and Emily Hall Tremaine collection, the 1988 sale of Andy Warhol’s personal collection and the 1989 auction of the Paul Mellon collection.

But even these possibilities deviate from the Sculls’ completely discretionary sale of contemporary works in 1973. The first two examples were precipitated by the deaths of Emily Hall Tremaine and Warhol, respectively. The Mellon sale was discretionary, but the works offered were largely, if not entirely, Impressionist and Modern.

In fact, if you want to know who was behind the next notable collection of contemporary works to reach auction for any reason, the best answer is probably the Sculls themselves.

Overshadowed by the 1973 auction is the fact that Robert and Ethel Scull entered into divorce proceedings only two years later. The battle over who was entitled to which assets raged for another 11 years, and it may have gone on even longer had Robert not died in 1986. His death led to a pair of back-to-back auctions at Sotheby’s that same year to disperse the couple’s holdings, with Ethel being awarded only a 35% share of the proceeds by the courts. (Relatedly, the official title of the 1973 sale was “Works From the Collection of Robert C. Scull”, a fact later used against Ethel to argue that she was less than an equal partner in their art acquisitions.)

When it comes to the 1973 auction, then, Robert Scull’s greatest marketing success was not the number of spectators at Sotheby Parke-Bernet that night, the ample contemporaneous media coverage of the sale or the record prices achieved there. It was the way these elements have gone on to produce a kind of shadow puppet in the art market’s memory: what we have come to see from afar looks more substantial than what was actually there.

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