I was in a house the other day, well stocked with art objects, where the latest prized collection of the collector was a hunk of raw beef, embalmed in a block of plastic. It looked revolting and consorted awkwardly with chinoiserie, impressionist paintings, Greek pots. and Columbian figures with which it was surrounded. But the collector told me it wouldn’t rot, and so I imagine it could be taken in a number of ways: from the spiritual aspect — corruption suspended in incorruption — to the coarsely material, an emblem of soaring beef prices and hence the satisfactory state of soybean futures, in which the collector had been briskly trading. Behind all this it could even be taken as a totemic prayer to the Almighty for a return to the great bull market of 1968. At any rate, the essense of the artist’s joke seemed to be about money and the value of commodities, whether artistic or bovine.
Eccentric or highly-strung artists sometimes get irritated by the commodity fetishism and financial pyramiding inseparable from their trade. An Austrian painter announced a while back that he would be photographed on successive days slicing off portions of his penis with a razor. Photographers gathered and the promised amputations took place. After three or four days the man bled to death. A friend of mine who later went to an exhibition where these photographs were on show reported that they excited no unusual interest.
Apart from Robert Rauschenberg, trim as a biscuit in a light tan velvet suit, no prominent artists were present for the much touted Scull sale at the Parke-Bernet galleries last week, though dealers would have been delighted to lend them a razor, there being no artist like a dead artist to accelerate the value of his work. Crowding into the third floor auction rooms were more than 1000 people to watch a purely financial operation. The terms of the spectacle can be briefly outlined.
Over the last decade or so, and particularly in the early ’60s, taxi-fleet owner Robert Scull has amassed in his apartment and warehouse a large collection of modern American paintings. These cheaply bought treasures have always been dear to his heart, and a source of constant pleasure to him and Mrs. Scull. In 1965 he sold 12 of them for $165,000. In 1970 he sold four more for $197,000. At the latter auction he bought back a Rothko and a Johns since he decided that not enough money was offered. For a seller this usually means he pays the auction house five per cent on the buying in price, gets the pictures back, and lives to sell another day.
By 1975 the Sculls decided the time was ripe for another testing of the temperature. The art market, after all, thrives on exchange. If there were only four Warhol pictures in the world, each of which had been bought for $1000 in 1960, and none of which had been sold, there would be uncertainty and confusion about the state of the Warhol market. A sale of one of these Warhols for $50,000 pleasantly dissipates the confusion. As Mr. Scull has himself remarked, “art has achieved the stature of a solid commodity” — evidently the successful sale of some of his commodities would leave the Scull warehouse inventory in even more splendidly solid state than ever.
Scull accordingly did a deal with Sotheby Parke-Bernet, Inc. Since neither side is forward with figures, it is necessary to make some guesses, but this is the broad picture.
The conventional procedure used to be that a seller would place his piece of art in an auction. To prevent sale of his commodity for too low a figure, injurious to pocket and self-esteem, also depreciatory of outstanding stock, he would put a reserve figure on the picture. Very often he would put a high reserve on, and the auction house would accordingly put on a high estimate — i.e., the ball park figure they let it be known they thought the picture might fetch — the reserve being about two-thirds of the estimate. If the picture had to be bought in by the auction house for failing to meet its reserve, the auction house would pocket five per cent of the buying in price, instead of 12 ½ per cent — if the picture had been sold — and would return the commodity to the seller.
Recently the Sotheby Parke-Bernet worked out an altogether more relaxing system, involving a preliminary guarantee to the seller. In this procedure the auction house guaranteed that the Sculls would receive — to make a guess — $2 million less commissions for the 50 pictures they were putting up for auction. In general such an arrangement soothes the nerves of the seller. If he were involved in other financial transactions, or (to hypothesize some imaginary seller) even under financial pressure, the guaranteed sum could even be used as collateral. The seller is not prompted to put high reserves on each of his pictures, since the pictures are now regarded as a commercial unit, a global reserve is put on their total value, and a sliding plus or minus scale goes into operation.
Thus let us say that Sotheby Parke-Bernet guaranteed Scull $2 million. The low estimated price they actually put on the 50 pictures was $1,850,000 and the high estimated price was $2,509,000. Let us say that the global reserve figure was $1.5 million, although it could well have been higher. Now the first picture in the sale was by the only woman in the sale, Lee Bontecou; the low estimated price was $8000. It sold for $7500. Let us assume that it had been sold for $5000, below an expected reserve price; the auctioneer need not necessarily buy the picture in, since the next picture might go for a sum in excess of the estimate, thus re-averaging the reserve scale.
If, of course, the entire collection fetched less than $2 million, then the auctioneer’s commission would increase — taking in the 7½ per cent guarantee commission as well as the 12½ per cent selling commission in order to reduce the deficit against the guaranteed sum promised the seller.
However, speaking now in the simple terms of a one-picture sale, the auctioneers might decide to buy the picture in. In this case they retain the picture, and can sell it the next time they feel the market is riper. So let us say they have bought in a picture for $100,000. They charge the seller 12½ per cent auctioneers’ commission, plus a guarantee commission of 7½ per cent. In all, therefore, the auctioneers get a slice of $20,000 plus the actual commodity: and the seller gets his guaranteed $80,000. At this point, terrible bayings of rage can be heard from dealers, whose business lies in inventory and who say that the auctioneer’s function is merely to be an entrepot, not another dealer in thin disguise, gradually accumulating an inventory of his own.
It is impossible to know what precise deal Sotheby Parke-Bernet and Scull made. One can assume that an elaborate system of sliding percentages was laid out. If, for example, the pictures had fetched, say, $4 million, one imagines that the auctioneer’s cut would correspondingly have decreased from 12½ per cent, since the 7½ per cent guarantee commission could have already become inoperative.
So here we are at the auction. Everybody hopes it will go well: Sotheby Parke-Bernet because they have guaranteed Scull about $2 million; Scull because he has a lot of other pictures in his warehouse and has his artistic entrepreneurial macho to consider; the dealers because it is always nice if a whole new generation of gilt-edged artistic commodities have come into circulation. The artists hope for the best too, since — if they are fortunate enough to be still alive — dramatic selling success for an early work will help to promote later output.
In addition to the 100 or so people with real business on their minds there are about 1000 who have come along for the show — smart folk mostly. There is little panache to the horde as it fights through a picket of taxi drivers who are protesting Scull’s confiscation of the surplus from poor taxi drivers and his re-investment of some of said surplus in poor artists — an arrangement which leaves Mr. Scull very rich, some artists richer then they were, and the taxi drivers as rich or poor as taxi drivers will always be.
Actually there are few things in life more depressing than an up-market art crowd: dealers in grain futures don’t get ideas above their station; somehow the tincture of aesthetic bathes every big occasion in hypocrisy, as though a napalm salesman kept asking you to admire the color of the flames. And there is something depressing about art auctions too: as if hundreds massed to watch some unsatisfactory sexual encounter — abundant foreplay; a mood of expectancy; then one person who wants it to stop and another who wants it to go on. In a minute or so it’s all over, and only the price to pay.
Why then is the auction groupie such a common sight? I suppose because it is somehow a pleasant enactment of the business process. You couldn’t get a smart crowd down at the New York Stock Exchange to watch a big trade in Campbell’s Soups, which lost ⅛ on the day of the auction, and closed at 51¾. On the other hand you could watch a Warhol Campbell soupcan painting sell for $12,000, at its high estimate, and then discover that Scull originally bought it for under $100 from Leo Castelli galleries in the early ’60s, thus realizing 12,000 per cent profit on his can. Thus people can have a good laugh about capitalism and celebrate it too.
The auction gets under way. There is bidding on closed circuit TV from the outlying rooms, and lines open to London and Los Angeles. The commodities are dragged onto the stage; the auctioneer quacks rapidly, and off they go. There is a little stir at the third lot: this is a cushion of sculpted urethane foam from the hand of John Chamberlain, executed in 1967. It looks a little dirty, as urethane foam so often does, and it seems that no such foam-object has ever been offered at auction before. The estimate is between $4000 and $6000. The bidding is slow, and limps to a halt at $1400.
One would like to inspect the person who has ventured $1400 for the urethane foam, but as always at auctions, unless you are on top of the bidder, it is impossible to know who it is. The onlookers are in a constant lather of ignorance. And even if you see the bidder, do you really, really know what he is up to? Is he a private buyer, or a dealer, buying for a buyer, and if so is the buyer Japanese or Texan. Or is he a dealer, who is in some form of cahoots with the auctioneers? On such occasions there is generally enough insider trading going on to keep the SEC in business for decades.
We press on. Everyone is waiting to see what happens to de Kooning, There are three: the first — one I don’t like — goes for $180,000. We are armed with a form sheet, supplied by Parke-Bernet, which lists previous record prices for the artist concerned — a sort of Benthamite approach to art criticism. De Kooning’s previous personal best has been $45,000, so he had done splendidly tonight. The auctioneer looks happy, and the next two de Koonings, both of which I would very much like to have, sell for $60,000 and $80,000, well under their estimates.
Near where I am standing a man has been vainly bidding. He preserves the proper impassivity in defeat. Then the Jasper Johns Double White Map comes up. This picture represents a high point in the sale: it has been estimated at between $150,000 and $200,000. My man bids, with a little nod of the head. There are other bids. He keeps on nodding. He is still nodding at $200,000. Unseen at the other end of the gallery, someone else is nodding also, solemn-faced, in the constipated etiquette of the auction room. My man goes on nodding until $240,000. Somewhere the other man shakes his head. My man allows a relapse of his features into a minute rictus of pleasure. He has got it. His wife kisses him: then he is all sternness once more, amid a little ripple of applause. It turns out that he is Ben Heller, who has recently sold a Jackson Pollock to Australia for $2 million. He finally shows all his teeth to Fred McDarrah, who tells me that Ivan Karp, who was the dealer for most of these artists originally, is listening to the Mets game through an earphone.
On and on we go: a bored pall descends. Everyone realizes it is a matter of listening to a cash register for an hour. Johns’s beer cans sell for $90,000. Barnett Newman fetches high prices, someone exhibiting great confidence in the art restorer’s skill, since one of them has been damaged in transit and is not even in the room. Oldenberg goes for less than expected. The pictures flash by: there goes Warhol’s soup can: here come Warhol’s flowers. They go for $135,000. More applause. It’s the last big buzz of the evening. Suddenly it is all over: 50 pictures have been sold for $2,242,900.
The Sculls appear for the press. He is aggressive — Maecenas at the market, instead of in his tower; she is in evident distress. She stands nose to nose with Rauschenberg, framed nicely for photographers. “It’s disgusting, horrible” she keeps saying. They totter off down stairs, and finally a gray Checker cab bears off the Sculls, her head cradled in his lap.
Certain points have been proved. Pop art — or ‘important contemporary American painting’ as the auctioneers like to put it — can fetch good prices, and has made the transition from a speculative commodity to gilt-edged. Fifty dealers and private buyers, half of them from Europe and half from America, have made what they regard as good investments, Sotheby Parke-Bernet, contrary to some reports, are well pleased. They have made something over $200,000 on the evening’s activity. Scull has received a check for around $1 million. One Sotheby Parke-Bernet source tells me that five pictures were bought in. The SPB p.r. people categorically deny this.
It’s true that the artists have not made any immediate cash on the evening: but at least their penises, in the case of the living males involved, are intact. ❖
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on October 29, 2020