On Monday, August 7, HBO will debut Lisanne Skyler’s documentary Brillo (3¢ Off) about the Andy Warhol sculpture her father bought in 1969 from Ivan Karp at the OK Harris Gallery. The smaller, yellow Brillo box sculpture was only $1000 but even then buying it was an act of cultural courage.
The film is framed as a wistful search for lost opportunity and a study of how works of art increase in value. The Skyler’s Brillo Box, which sat in a protective plexiglass case in the family living room, was eventually sold to Charles Saatchi. He, in turn, sold it to a collector who also gave the work up to the dealer Robert Shapazian who ran Larry Gagosian’s LA outpost until his death in 2010.
When Shapazian’s estate was sold at Christie’s later that year, there was a bidding war for the Brillo Box driving the price to $3m. Would the Skylers have gotten so much money for their Brillo Box had they held on to it? After all, Saatchi and Shapazian are big names to conjure with in the art market.
That’s not really the reason to watch Brillo Box (3¢ Off). All collectors react with chagrin when they see the price paid for a work they once owned. Lurking behind the price porn in the documentary is a touching story of why people collect art and how their different motivations can become a source of tension and regret.
The stars of the movie are not the art market professionals who narrate the Brillo Box’s rise in value. It is Martin Skyler and his ex-wife Rita who draw our attention. Martin explains how he became interested in art as a young lawyer through a friend who took him gallery hopping. Martin viewed contemporary art in transactional terms as much because that was the only way he could afford more art was to sell the art he owned at a profit.
Rita had a different feel for it. Her attachment to the works—especially the Brillo Box—was more elemental. After two years, Martin sold the Warhol for a Peter Young, then an artist about to explode. At the time, it seemed like a savvy deal. Brillo Box (3¢ Off) surely takes a little poetic license when it leaves us with the sense that the lingering animosity over the Warhol deal eventually doomed their marriage. No matter. The resulting portrait of a young couple collecting contemporary art is well worth the viewing.