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How Leo Castelli, MoMA, and Two Wealthy Collectors Charted Today’s Rocket-Fueled Art Market

We might never have known about it, if it weren’t for the boast. Just as collectors brag about their acquisitions, art dealers have been known to brag about their sales, even the legendarily genteel Leo Castelli, widely considered the most important contemporary art dealer of all time. He was interviewed in 1969 by Paul Cummings from the Smithsonian, for an oral history. Knowing the interview would be sealed for years, Castelli felt at ease confiding his heroic tale from six years back.

In 1963 Castelli was in a jam: two of his biggest clients, the Sculls and the Tremaines, wanted the same painting by the 32-year-old Jasper Johns, Castelli’s breakout star. It was new money versus old: Ethel and Robert Scull’s money came from a fleet of taxis in the Bronx, Emily and Burton Tremaine’s from inheritances and General Electric. For five years both couples had been demanding first pick of the best Johnses, and, Castelli said, they both wanted Map (1961). It was a trophy: an expressionistic painting of the map of the United States that, at a whopping 10 feet across, was the largest Johns had ever made.

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“[T]o cut the Gordian knot,” Castelli told Cummings, “Jasper said nobody could have it. It has to go to a museum, and whoever offers better conditions will get [to live with] it during their lifetime.” The Tremaines were famously planning to donate their collection to the National Gallery of Art—someday, and on their terms. The Sculls won by wasting no time: they donated Map to the Museum of Modern Art right away, as a fractional gift—even before they had finished paying for it.1

The Sculls’ enthusiasm may have been fueled by more than mere philanthropy. That transaction—and the tax deductions behind it—recently became the subject of a paper on tax policy in the Columbia Journal of Law & the Arts. Art historian Michael Maizels and University of Arkansas School of Law associate dean William Foster argue that the previously unexamined financial manipulations by Castelli and the Sculls around Map and its donation to MoMA were as material to the story of postwar art’s growing market as the painting itself. I recently used their paper as a jumping-off point for a deep dive into the Castelli archives, held by the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art. What I found was that the Sculls’ purchase and gift of Map stands as a singular transactional masterpiece, an exemplary product of the remarkable relationship between Castelli, Johns, the Sculls (and their heated competition with the Tremaines), and MoMA, that shaped the course of art and the market for it over decades.

Jasper Johns, Map, 1961
Jasper Johns’s Map (1961): The Sculls likely made a profit by donating the painting to the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Jamie Stukenberg, Professional Graphics, Rockford, Illinois/©The Wildenstein Plattner Institute, New York

If we are to believe Robert Scull, the origins of the Map transaction trace back to a brash offer he made at the opening for Johns’s first solo show at Castelli’s New York gallery, in January 1958, and what happened afterward. It was then that all the constituents were coalescing to embrace Johns, and launch his market: the dealer, the museum, the collectors, the press. And Scull tried to horn in on it all.

Castelli had offered the 27-year-old Johns a show less than a year before—the first artist at his fledgling gallery, along with Robert Rauschenberg. Johns was the first to take off. Leo included Johns’s 1954 Flag in a group show in May 1957, two months after signing him, and he sold a few works to adventurous young collectors that year, including a number painting and a flag drawing to Donald and Harriet Peters, and a flag drawing to Wynn Kramarsky.

Johns was poised for liftoff, and the art press was fueling him. In December, less than a month before Johns’s solo debut, Thomas B. Hess, then managing editor of this magazine, stopped by the fourth-floor apartment on the Upper East Side that the Castellis—Leo and his wife, Ileana, whose family money was bankrolling the venture—had converted into Leo’s gallery; Hess had come to borrow Johns’s Target with Four Faces, so he could photograph it. There is no persuasive account of how it ended up on the cover of the January 1958 issue of ARTnews, or how Fairfield Porter reviewed the show weeks before it opened, but there it was.

ARTnews cover, January 1958, Jasper Johns
ARTnews’s January 1958 cover anointed Japser Johns a star. ©ARTnews

Robert Scull, with signature bombast, would later claim that at that opening he offered to buy every single work. Castelli said that would be vulgar, and refused. As it happened, he had a more important customer to whom, over the next few days, he would sell half the show. Johns’s first solo show was a revelation for the Museum of Modern Art’s director, Alfred Barr. In a 1997 interview for MoMA’s archives, Ileana said, “The first time I saw Barr really excited was at Jasper’s opening . . . I thought, oh well, he does have blood like the rest of us.”

The way Leo told it to Paul Cummings, Barr saw the show only after it opened, when he promptly summoned Dorothy Miller, his assistant curator, to join him and select works to acquire. Other retellings involve intense discussions with Johns, who either just happened to be in the back room or who was summoned uptown to meet Barr and Miller on a weekend.

One thing various accounts share is Barr’s determination to guide Johns’s shocking work into MoMA. He worried that conservative trustees or political groups concerned about Johns’s patriotism in the Cold War environment might interpret Flag negatively. Another thing poking at him was a sculpted penis in his favorite work of them all, Target with Plaster Casts (1955). Johns’s refusal of the curator’s demand to hide the penis by closing the small door on a compartment that housed it had kept the painting out of a 1957 group show at the Jewish Museum in New York. Barr was more diplomatic, asking Johns whether closing the little door would go against his intentions for the work. “Well, if it’s entirely casually closed, I really don’t mind,” Johns replied, “but I do not want it to be programmatically closed. . . . I would rather prefer that you . . . not take the painting.” (Leo ended up buying the work for himself. Years later, the dealer recalled how Barr and his colleagues feared that “this limply hanging green penis would excite peoples’ susceptibilities.” There remains much work to be done to understand how Jasper Johns’s penis unsettled the men of New York’s art establishment.)

But Barr would not let a painted penis or the Cold War stop him. Johns’s symbols and figures showed painting an exit out of the roundabout of Abstract Expressionism. He made the unprecedented decision to acquire for MoMA four works from the debut show of an unknown painter. Castelli’s February 17, 1958, invoice for Flag (1954), Target with Four Faces (1955), Green Target (1955), and White Numbers (1957) came to $2,835 (a 10 percent discount on $3,150). The latter two were purchased using acquisition funds created by trustees Richard Zeisler and Elizabeth Bliss Parkinson, respectively.

As one of two paintings priced at $1,000, Flag would have required trustee approval; instead, Barr got architect, collector, former curator, and museum trustee Philip Johnson to buy it for himself, with the understanding he’d give it to the museum. Target with Four Faces, the first of the works to be formally accessioned, was purchased through a gift of $630 from Ethel and Robert Scull.

Barr was not alone in his admiration; the buzz about Johns traveled quickly within the MoMA family. More than half the works in the 1958 show ended up with MoMA, museum employees, or their affiliates. In addition to Barr and Miller, who both bought 1957 paintings for themselves (Book and Gray Numbers, respectively), trustee and acquisitions committee head James Thrall Soby bought White Target (also 1957). Drawings curator William Lieberman bought a flag drawing that Castelli made available through the Modern’s popular Art Lending Service, a rental/consignment program run by museum volunteers to encourage collecting. Ben Heller, Mrs. Thomas Watson, and John and Barbara Jakobson, all either trustees or members of MoMA’s International Council or Junior Council, bought works from the show.

Ileana bought Flag on Orange Field (1957), and the last available work, Tango (1956), an encaustic monochrome with a tweaked music box embedded in it, went to Emily and Burton Tremaine, members of the International Council who also later bought White Flag (1955–58) and Three Flags (1958), the latter while it was still unfinished in Johns’s studio.

Despite Robert’s brazen opening offer, and their funding of MoMA’s Target acquisition, the Sculls themselves got nothing. They would soon make up for lost time.

Collectors Robert and Ethel Scull
Robert and Ethel Scull set out to build a social life through art collecting. Fred W. McDarrah/Getty Images

The Castelli Gallery Ledger Books for the Sculls are more tangled than any Pollock drip painting. Scull was an active client even before Leo opened the gallery, when he was sourcing and brokering deals on paintings from European modernists like Kandinsky, Dubuffet, and Arp. The Sculls, whose outer borough crassness and taxi-cab fortune didn’t exactly endear them to Manhattan’s condescending classes, used art to fuel a social life and to improve their standing. Between 1958 and 1962 they bought dozens of works from Castelli, including many Johns paintings, drawings, and prints. At least two were listed as commissions, including Double Flag from 1962.

During this period, Johns, a young art star, was the recipient of the Sculls’ intense attention, gifts, and invitations to dinner parties at Scull’s Folly, their home on the North Shore of Long Island. When Johns refused the Sculls’ requests for additional commissions or invitations, they solicited Leo’s help to plead their case. Such aggressive wooing was surely a factor—along with the end of his and Rauschenberg’s relationship—in Johns’s decision to escape for part of the year to the remote South Carolina island town of Edisto, beginning in early 1961.

The Sculls courted publicity for their collecting and were aggrieved when they didn’t get it. They turn out to be involved in a classic tale about the 1960 sculpture Painted Bronze (Ale Cans) that Johns made after hearing Willem de Kooning joke about Castelli: “That son-of-a-bitch, you could give him two beer cans and he could sell them.” Castelli did sell them: to the Sculls. “A keen disappointment to see our beer cans in Art International [Magazine] without our name,” Robert wrote to Leo in 1960. “Ethel and I are nonplussed. . . . Ethel suggested we change our name to Tremaine, and things would go O.K. (She’s probably right!).”

The Tremaines, for whom art served less as a means to enhance their social standing, than as an affirmation of it, vexed the Sculls—and vice versa. Robert and Ethel complained repeatedly to Castelli that he was slighting them and giving preferential treatment to the Tremaines. In one excoriating letter to Leo from Paris in October 1962, Robert Scull wrote: “I just spoke to Ethel on the telephone and for some reason she seems completely angry about something far more complicated than you not making our son’s bar mitzvah. Of course I was hoping to hear from her that you might have asked her over for dinner during my absence, but instead when I asked something about something related to the sale of one of our works, she became furious at the mention of your name.

“The point I’m trying to make,” Scull continues, “is that sometimes even aside from friendship, one should make some little concessions, even if it hurts, to treat a customer like Ethel with the same degree of respect and care as you would the Tremaines or some other customer that you have on occasion asked me to vacate your back room for. Please hold off on any transactions concerning the Pollock until I can get some more coherent facts from Ethel when I mention your name.”

The Tremaines, for their part, did not correspond with Castelli about their apparent disdain for the Sculls, though they wrote to him constantly about the conservation of Tango which, like all of Johns’s early encaustic and newsprint works, was immediately discovered to be terrifyingly fragile. Emily Tremaine’s biographer, Kathleen L. Housley, characterizes the relationship between the two couples as “frosty competition,” adding that, “if a dealer had the audacity to show a work to the Sculls before showing to the Tremaines (or vice versa), he ran the risk of jeopardizing all future sales.”

In an undated interview transcript in the Emily Hall Tremaine Foundation archives, Tremaine contrasts the callow “opportunism” of her unnamed rival collectors for Johns and subsequent Pop artists with her own connoisseurship and intellectual engagement with art history: “The very boldness of the work attracted early publicity,” Tremaine said, “and I think that some people who did not really think too deeply were attracted to it because it was new.”

If, as Scull imagined, Castelli treated his two biggest clients differently, perhaps it was because only one of them brought chaotic churn and drama that repeatedly put his business at risk of insolvency. (Scull did this elsewhere, too: Castelli makes no mention of it in any interview or archival correspondence, but he surely knew that beginning in 1960 Scull was the secret financial backer of the Green Gallery, which closed abruptly in 1965 after Scull cut off his support.)

Besides the perceived disrespect it mentions, Robert’s letter from Paris is notable for its reference to a sale—and its cancellation. The Sculls were as likely to pay for their art with art as with cash. They traded or consigned to the Castelli Gallery Pollocks, Klines, and Giacomettis they had purchased only a year or two earlier. A flurry of invoices for gallery artists’ works would go out, only to be canceled en masse a few months later. The transactions generated an immense amount of bookkeeping, but they must also have put intense strain on Castelli’s cash flow. This was particularly acute for a new gallery whose innovation was to free emerging artists from the vagaries of sales pressure by paying them a monthly stipend, and one capitalized with funding from the wife’s family—a wife who divorced Leo and remarried in 1959, decamping to Europe while retaining joint custody of the gallery’s artists and real estate.

If Scull was a cause of the gallery’s liquidity challenges, he was also their occasional solution. Castelli left it out of his self-congratulatory account of the Map deal in the Cummings interview but, in June 1963, a week before he issued the invoice to the Sculls, he repaid a $20,000 loan Scull had extended a year before, for which Castelli had pledged several Johns paintings as collateral. Further exploration of Castelli’s archive reveals that in 1965, he would take another one-year loan from Scull, this time for $45,000, secured by a giant James Rosenquist painting.

Leo’s complicated relationship with Scull, and Scull’s competition with the Tremaines, came to a head with Map. In contrast to the Tremaines’ reluctance, the Sculls’ funding of MoMA’s acquisition of Johns’s Target with Four Faces back in 1958 showed they were sanguine, even eager, to make high-profile donations to the museum. With a fractional gift, the Sculls could live with and show off Map—while reaping the benefits of a substantial tax break. The key to it all would be the appraisal.

In June 1963, the Sculls agreed to pay $15,000 for Map in three quarterly installments. According to Castelli’s ledger, the invoice went to East Hampton, where the Sculls were summering. Before he paid the second installment in September, and before the Modern formally accessioned Map into the collection, Robert Scull obtained an appraisal through the Art Dealers Association of America (ADAA), prepared by the association’s leading Johns experts: Castelli himself and his gallery director Ivan Karp.

Castelli and Karp set the value of Map at $150,000—a full ten times the purchase price. When fellow board members at the ADAA suggested this might be ambitious, Castelli got second opinions from, as he put it in the 1969 interview with Cummings, “some independent sources, maybe the German dealers who handle [Johns] and perhaps a Swiss dealer who has a real sense of value, is well informed. So we did that, and we got replies back. One said 120, and another said 140. So we decided to have it registered at 130.”

According to Maizels and Foster in their Columbia Journal of Law & the Arts paper, here’s what that $130,000 appraisal meant for Scull’s taxes: At the 77 percent marginal rate in place at the time, his donation of Map to MoMA would have generated more than $100,000 in tax reductions, netting $85,000 after the original purchase.

Though the museum registered Map as a 1963 accession, its earliest known appearance at MoMA2 was not until 1971—in a show of so-called recent acquisitions. And though it was ultimately included in Johns’s 1964 survey at the Jewish Museum, and credited to MoMA as a fractional gift of the Sculls on the exhibition checklist, it was very much in the Sculls’ possession and control. (According to a 1994 Johns interview at MoMA, the temperamental Sculls threatened to withhold their works from the Jewish Museum show for so long, the artist remade some key paintings as potential replacements.)

In the five-volume catalogue raisonné of Jasper Johns paintings and sculpture, Roberta Bernstein sheds light on how the Sculls’ fractional gift was structured: they donated 25 percent of Map to the Modern in 1963, and the remaining 75 percent in 1970. It is likely that, thanks to Castelli’s appraisal, buying and donating Map netted the Sculls at least $10,000 in 1963.

Castelli’s archive shows he was a prolific and aggressive appraiser for the ADAA, but nothing approaches Map for rapid appreciation and financial impact. As Maizels and Foster note, however, change was coming. Castelli issued his extraordinary appraisal a few months after the IRS approached the ADAA for comments on new regulations being devised for valuing charitable donations; apparently there had been some abuse. The ADAA’s self-managed system remained in place for a couple of years, but in 1968 the IRS established its own panels of experts for independent appraisals of charitable donations.

Collectors Burton and Emily Hall Tremaine
Collectors Burton and Emily Hall Tremaine: the avant-garde’s golden umbilical cord. Courtesy Tremaine Foundation

This tale is not just art history. What becomes clear in retrospect is how this competitive swirl around Johns, this relentless pursuit of the new, and even the audacious accounting of Map’s appraisal, presaged the burgeoning market for contemporary art that continues into the present. As some of the first stewards of Johns’s key paintings, the Sculls and the Tremaines would set them on trajectories that would see them establish important critical and market milestones in the 1970s and 1980s and beyond.

In 1973, on the front edge of a divorce, the Sculls cashed out a large chunk of their collection at Sotheby’s/Parke-Bernet. This was the first major auction of contemporary art, and the first single-collector sale, and it was highly controversial. Works purchased for a few hundred or a couple thousand dollars from then emerging stars brought the Sculls hundreds of thousands in profits. Johns’s Double White Map, purchased in 1965 from Castelli for $10,000, sold for $240,000, a record price for the artist, and almost double Scull’s 10-year-old appraisal for Map. In 1986, after eleven years of lawsuits against her ex-husband, and then his estate, Ethel Scull was awarded first pick from what remained of the art they’d collected together. She took the best work remaining: Johns’s 1959 painting Out the Window.

As for the Tremaines, after being courted by museums who wanted them to donate their collection, they spent years trying to craft a deal that would leave their art on permanent display, not in storage, presaging deals that powerful collectors like Doris and Donald Fisher and Stefan T. Edlis would reach decades later with, respectively, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Art Institute of Chicago. The Tremaines pressured the National Gallery to manage a Tremaine Collection lending service for museums across the country, but the gallery balked at their demands.

Meanwhile, Emily Tremaine proved not to be immune to the attention the market brought. In 1980 Jasper Johns became the first living artist whose work sold for $1 million after dealer Arne Glimcher, founder of Pace Gallery, brokered the sale of the Tremaines’ Three Flags to the Whitney Museum. Whitney director Thomas Armstrong checked first with Castelli, who had not been aware the painting was for sale, but who envisioned selling it to the Japanese. “I was sort of hurt because he didn’t think I could accomplish the purchase,” Armstrong told Tremaine biographer Housley. “His attitude was sort of, ‘forget it, whippersnapper, I’ve got other plans for this picture.’ ” Eager for the attention the sale would bring to the museum, Armstrong rallied his board (led by Leonard Lauder), which paid the $1 million over three years.

Next, the Tremaines anointed a younger dealer, a hustler who worked with Castelli. In 1985 the Los Angeles–based Larry Gagosian, then less than a decade into his art-dealing career, convinced the Tremaines to let him exhibit a selection of works from their collection, apparently by cold-calling them in Connecticut. Gagosian told the journalist Deborah Gimelson in 1989, “I looked up their phone number from Connecticut information. I offered them a lot of money for a Brice Marden painting. Mrs. Tremaine liked me on the phone; she thought I was funny. Or maybe she liked the money I offered for the painting.” As Gimelson put it, “The exhibition of work from the Tremaine collection was almost more important than a single sale from it, since it proclaimed Gagosian’s association with the collectors. . . . [T]he result of the Tremaine show was instant credibility.”

Neither were the Sculls done. In 1986 Ethel sold her Johns Out the Window for $3.63 million at Sotheby’s, setting new records for both a work by a living artist and for a postwar painting. The Tremaines went on to reset those records again two years later when they sold White Flag at Christie’s for $7 million on November 9, 1988. A few days later, another Johns broke the living-artist record yet again. Sotheby’s sold his 1959 painting False Start for $17 million, the second-highest price ever paid at auction for any artwork. The winning bidder was Gagosian, buying for Condé Nast owner S. I. Newhouse, who sat at his side.

Newhouse would sell False Start in the early 1990s to entertainment mogul David Geffen, who would in turn sell it in 2006 to hedge fund manager Kenneth Griffin, for $80 million. In 2010 Leo Castelli’s son, Jean-Christophe, sold a 1958 Johns Flag to another hedge-funder, Steven A. Cohen, for $110 million. In 2015 Jasper Johns sold Painted Bronze, a 1960 sculpture of paintbrushes in a coffee can that had been on loan from the artist to the Philadelphia Museum of Art for more than three decades, for an undisclosed sum to MoMA president Marie-Josée Kravis and her private equity fund manager husband, Henry, on the condition that they donate it to the museum upon their deaths.

J. Carter Brown, director of the National Gallery for more than 20 years, until 1992, who talked to Housley about letting the Tremaine collection with all its entanglements go elsewhere, said that the collectors had been “mesmerized” by the rising market value of the artworks Emily Tremaine had found. “When it got expensive, it was a justification that she was right and they were wrong. But without selling it, she couldn’t establish the degree to which this monetary value was indexed and how right she was,” Brown said. “She was asking for applause, and she was bound and determined that she was going to get a number that would prove her correct.”

Whether the currency is attention and applause or auction results, the marketplace incentives end up influencing everyone involved, from artists and dealers to collectors and institutions. Explaining the aftermath of that momentous $1 million sale of Three Flags in 1980, Housley wrote, “The irony is that by selling it, Emily got the recognition for which she longed at the same time she fueled the very market she detested.” What could be more American than that?

1. This past May, Johns confirmed Castelli’s account via email.
2. MoMA did not respond to multiple inquiries about the Sculls’ donation, and the museum’s archives are inaccessible to researchers during its current construction.

A version of this story originally appeared in the Fall 2019 issue of ARTnews under the title “Treasure Map.”