One of the most famous auctions in art market history is the Scull sale that took place at Sotheby’s Parke Bernet on Ocotber 18, 1973 as Taxi magnate and collector Robert Scull liquidated his Contemporary art collection to shouted bids and hails of protest. The auction is regularly cited for the quality of Scull’s collection and the furor his profiteering seemed to cause. Then, as today, there was a moral outcry that art was being treated as a commodity and the artists were being ripped off.
Here in Robert Hughes’s The Mona Lisa Curse we get real-time footage of the famous encounter between Robert Rauschenberg and Scull. This moment has been characterized in numerous accounts as shoving match or Rauschenberg punching Scull in the stomach. And you’ll see that Rauschenberg does give Scull a less-than-friendly push. But what happens next will confound most of those who have quoted the event as example of the market’s outrage. That’s because seconds after Rauschenberg complains of Scull making a profit after Rauschenberg was “working his ass off.” Scull turns it around and reminds the artist that he’s been working for Rauschenberg too. The sale set a new price level to Rauschenberg’s direct benefit.
But that’s not the amazing part. Realizing this, Rauschenberg wastes no time capitalizing on the moment. He implores Scull to buy his next work a the same price. And the too men fall into each other’s arms in laughter. Nervous laughter but laughter nonetheless.
The point here is that the confrontation we see here is far different from the one we’ve been told about. Everyone at the sale was keen to make a buck, the artist especially. And, don’t forget, Rauschenberg died many years later a very, very rich man.
Just for reference, here’s the New York Times obituary for Robert Scull which mentions the sale:
In 1973, the couple was castigated by some artists and critics for the sale -in an auction that drew $2.2 million -of 50 of those works, which had been acquired at comparatively little cost. The auction broke records for contemporary American art in several categories. At a news conference afterward, the artist Robert Rauschenberg accused Mr. Scull of ”infidelity” and the auction house of encouraging ”profiteering.”
The Sculls’ collecting activities began in the field of Abstract Expressionism, and by 1965 they had acquired some 30 works by Willem de Kooning, Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko, Franz Kline and others. Their first auction sale, of a dozen works, was held in 1965. Its purpose was to raise money to encourage unknown artists, and the proceeds went to establish the Robert and Ethel Scull Foundation. Liked ‘Being Involved’
With the foundation’s money, Mr. Scull commissioned environmental works from such then-unknown artists as Michael Heizer and Walter de Maria, and also gave artists stipends, bought them food and clothes and paid for their materials. He did it, he said, for the thrill of ”being involved.” When an interviewer asked about accusations that he bought art for investment and for social climbing, Mr. Scull responded, ”It’s all true. I’d rather use art to climb than anything else.”
ROBERT SCULL, PROMINENT COLLECTOR OF POP ART (NYTimes.com)