In 1969 Lisanne Skyler’s father paid $1,000 for a Warhol. Just over 40 years later it sold for $3 million in a record-breaking Christie’s auction. Unfortunately, he’d swapped the work for another decades earlier. The story, as Skyler explains, is the subject of her acclaimed new film Brillo Box (3¢ Off)
Warhol shocked the art world with his Brillo Boxes — many critics questioned how they could be considered art. Why did your parents choose to buy one?
Lisanne Skyler: My parents were extremely culturally forward for their time, and many of the artists they collected — including Warhol, Lichtenstein and Twombly — are now hugely sought-after. A lot of the art they collected was edgy, and they were always questioning what art was.
Brillo Box (3¢ Off) was only the second piece my father bought. A friend advised him that it would be a good piece to start out with, and it was certainly striking. He took it home to my mum, and she absolutely loved it. I think she really connected with Warhol and understood what he was trying to do with his work.
How did they acquire Brillo Box (3ȼ Off)?
When my father began collecting, one of the first people he met in the art world was Ivan Karp [the New York gallerist who championed the work of artists including Claes Oldenburg, Warhol, Lichtenstein and Rauschenberg]. Karp was an incredible figure, and a big supporter of Warhol. According to records, the box belonged to Karp, who sold it to my father for $1,000 in 1969 — something that only makes the piece more special.
Your father asked Warhol to sign Brillo Box — a fact that later added to its rarity and value. Was he aware of this at the time?
Warhol didn’t generally sign his work then. When my father asked him to do so, in red crayon, he knew it was a little gauche — though it seemed to tickle Warhol. Of course, for those in the know, it was obvious that no one but Warhol could have made the work. But there was an investing side to my father, and he wanted to authenticate the work. That little signature became a very special part of the story.
How old were you when Brillo Box was sold? Were you aware of it growing up, either as an object that your parents owned, or which they had sold on?
I was around two years old. My parents didn’t have Brillo Box for long, but it definitely made an impact on us; there was always that one picture of it in the family album. At first, I didn’t realise it was a work of art, and that’s probably what attracted my parents to the piece — they had a sense of humour.
I grew up in New York in the Eighties. At that time the city associated Warhol more with celebrity and Studio 54 than with art but, as I got older, I discovered his work for myself. As a filmmaker, I could particularly relate to him: Warhol documented so much of our culture, capturing what mattered to us, what was profound, fascinating or disturbing.
The film trailer shows a picture of you on top of Brillo Box as a baby — something that seems unimaginable given the work’s value today. Was art very much a part of your home?
The walls of our apartments were completely covered in art, but that photograph is one of the only records of a work in our collection. My parents were more interested in documenting their kids — which wasn’t particularly helpful when it came to researching a film!
Unlike painting, however, sculpture doesn’t recede into the background, but prompts interaction. My parents made a plastic case for Brillo Box and used it as a coffee table — as did gallerist Leo Castelli, who rested a phone on his. Their decision to put a baby on it seems unimaginable today, but that photograph inspired me. The Warhol became this mystery: how is it we’d had it and let it go? And what was the deeper impact of art on my family’s life, and on society?
How did you react when you heard that the same sculpture your parents bought in 1969 for $1,000 had sold — at Christie’s 40 years later, in 2010 — for $3 million?
It was surreal. Brillo Box was something I felt a deep tie to — sometimes we don’t remember things from life, but we remember them from photographs and they become iconic. Before the sale I had been making a fictional film that looked at family life in the 1970s, and I started to think about my own childhood, and being dragged around galleries in SoHo by my parents — something that I now see as incredibly special.
I wanted to make a film about that experience with art, but I didn’t want the focus just to be on my family. I wanted to look at the economic aspects of art, and how works change hands. My mother called me to tell me it was fall auction season at Christie’s — the idea that our Brillo Box might be up for sale seemed crazy but, to my amazement, I found a yellow Brillo Box, signed in red crayon.
How did you trace the box’s journey from your family home to Christie’s?
I got in touch with Christie’s, believing that whoever responded to my call would think I was crazy. But everyone responded to what was a very personal story, and was incredibly collaborative. Every time the box was recorded as having changed hands, it had done so through Christie’s, so it had a long history with the auction house, too.
Getting in touch with Christie’s was a real breakthrough. With the help of specialist Laura Paulson, I found old auction catalogues, and was able to track the box’s progress — through the collection of Charles Saatchi, who bought it for $35,000 in 1988, to the collection of Robert Shapazian, the founding director of Gagosian. The box was sold upon Shapazian’s death in 2010, and Laura was able to put me in touch with people who knew him and could tell his story. Finding that shared personal connection to a work was amazing.
Did your parents ever regret selling the work?
Of course, who wouldn’t? But they also recognised that the transaction was a product of its time. For them, I think the film was a way of working through what had happened; they were able to acknowledge that they are part of the story of the work, and that the values they passed on to their kids are very important. But it’s tricky when something has a huge price tag — how do you separate that from your personal feelings?
No one can predict the things that happen in our cultural economy. When the box came up for sale in 2010, the market appeared to be slowing — that proved not to be the case. Now, of course, Andy Warhol has become a cultural staple, in the same way that it’s hard to imagine anyone thinking of Picasso as anything other than a great artist.
Have you inherited an interest in collecting?
I’ve started to collect more and more. I’ve always had this appreciation for art and of course film, which I think came from my family. It’s very hard, but very interesting, to ask how we value art. Looking at a work is a non-verbal experience — you have an emotional response, and that’s often hard to quantify.
My parents’ interest in Warhol meant that I was always drawn to him, and to art. That’s something I think is important, and that I want my children to appreciate. My parents were amazingly ahead of their time; it’s because of them that I became a filmmaker.
Why did you make the film? What did you hope to show?
I was fascinated by the idea of buying art as an emotional experience — you have a personal response to a work in much the same way that you might respond to a house. I was also interested in how that response changes, and how that affects the value that collectors — or society — give to works.
What’s it like to see something that began as an intimate family history become something so much bigger?
The film is a blend of art history and a very personal family narrative about the role that Warhol has played in our lives. Admittedly, the first time I saw my baby photo in The Wall Street Journal it was a little surreal. I did feel exposed, and of course, you want people to like your parents, and not feel bad for your family.
What has been surprising — and great — is to see how people have connected with Brillo Box (3ȼ Off). I think most people have reflected, nostalgically, on certain points of their lives, and we’ve all dealt with the unpredictable; it’s a story that, in many ways, is very relatable.
If money were no object, would you pay $3 million for the Brillo Box (3ȼ Off) today?
Yes! If money were no object, of course. I’ve often thought, ‘What if it came back into our lives?’ Would we want it back because of Warhol, or because of its personal connection? It would probably be a combination of both. But the film is also about letting go; I think of it as a little Valentine’s to my parents. We may have sold the Warhol, but we gained something much greater.
Brillo Box (3ȼ Off) will be shown on HBO in June 2017. Christie’s will be presenting a special screening of the film at the FOG Design + Art Fair in San Francisco on 14 January. The screening will be followed by a panel discussion featuring Lisanne Skyler, Laura Paulson (Christie’s) and Gary Garrels (SFMOMA)