A still from Lisanne Skyler’s new film Brillo Box (3¢ Off)
A still from Lisanne Skyler’s new film Brillo Box (3¢ Off)

Dad lost his £3m Warhol work? Then make a movie

Lisanne Skyler’s new film Brillo Box (3¢ Off) traces her dad's pop art bargain from the streets of NY to Christie's

Imagine your dad paid $1000 for 'a box of scrubbing pads'. Then imagine, that 'box' eventually came to be worth $3m. Happy days, right? But then, also imagine, rather than being in a position to actualise his good fortune, your dad had swapped the 'box' a few years earlier for something worth rather a lot less. Ouch.

This is the story behind Lisanne Skyler’s new film Brillo Box (3¢ Off) coming to HBO soon. In 1969, Skyler’s father, Martin, then a young New York assistant district attorney and art enthusiast bought one of Andy Warhol's Brillo Box sculptures. These wooden works mimicked the cleaning product’s packaging as closely as possible – a double irony, as Brillo’s poppy logo had been designed by little-known Abstract Expressionist painter James Harvey.

Warhol made around 100 white Brillo boxes and 17 yellow ones in 1964. By the time Martin came to buy one, the yellow versions were seen as less valuable; he paid $1,000 for his work, or about $6,500 in today’s money.

 

Lisanne on the Brillo box in a still from her new film Brillo Box (3¢ Off)
Lisanne on the Brillo box in a still from her new film Brillo Box (3¢ Off)

Martin asked if the gallery could authenticate the work, and the box was signed by Warhol – a key factor which would drive up the price of the work in years to home.

Alas neither Martin nor his daughter were able to realise the 21st value of the work. The family used the Brillo box as an impromptu coffee table and later traded it for an abstract work by the US painter Peter Young.

Lisanne’s film follows the Brillo box’s progress, through the collection of Charles Saatchi, who bought it for $35,000 in 1988, and into the hands of the Gasgosian’s founding director Robert Shapazian. Upon Shapazian’s death in 2010 the box was sold at Christie’s for $3m. However, Shapazian’s personal associations may have helped the box gain that high price, as it has subsequently been sold again, in 2014, for $1.4m.

 

Brillo boxes and other works (1964) by Andy Warhol
Brillo boxes and other works (1964) by Andy Warhol

Does Martin have any regrets? Perhaps not. “When you get right down to it, it really wasn’t all that attractive,” says the box’s erstwhile owner. “It was just a yellow box with some red lettering on it, basically.”

To understand why 'a yellow box with some red lettering on it' might go for so much, order a copy of Collecting Art for Love, Money and More. For greater insight into Warhol’s art, life and politics, browse through our wide array of Warhol titles, which include this collectionthis great compact introductionthis massive overviewthis snappy celebrity portrait collection, and if you want to avoid any costly errors: this comprehensive, multivolume catalogue raisonné.