Was This the Most Scandalous Auction Ad in Art History? 45 Years Later, We Reflect Back on a Favorite Fall Auction Week Controversy

In September 1971, a young auction house specialist took out an ad in Artforum for Parke-Bernet (now Sotheby's). Chaos ensued.

The October 1971 ad for Parke-Bernet Auction House (now Sotheby's) featured a provocative image of James Mayor and Sarah Lee Picasso.

As another dizzying auction week in New York comes to an end, but before tucking the paddles and estimates  into the deep recesses of our minds, let’s take a moment to remember a fall auction scandal of yesteryear.

The year was 1971, and Sotheby’s was not yet a twinkle in Patrick Drahi’s eye. Just six years earlier, the British auction house had acquired Parke-Bernet, a New York house, and still did business in the city under the Parke-Bernet name.

James Mayor, who would later go on to found London’s The Mayor Gallery, was a young specialist at the New York auction house at the time, and a bit of a libertine. In September of that year, with an auction two months out, the house agreed to pay for a quarter-page advertisement in Artforum—a task Mayor decided to take up himself.“There are famous ads, and then there are infamous ads,” said Mayor. “The Lynda Benglis ad with the dildo is probably the most famous,” recalling the artist’s iconic 1974 ad in the magazine. 

Around the time Mayor was meant to place the ad, he found himself wandering the San Gennaro festival in New York’s Little Italy, accompanied by Sarah Lee Picasso, the then wife of Claude Picasso, after a boozy lunch. A photo of the pair sharing a cotton candy was snapped. In the photo, Mayor, clad in a white suit, holds a carnival balloon near the fly of his pants in a phallic gesture. Mayor ran the Artforum ad with this photo accompanied by the words “Parke-Bernet is having another auction” scrawled in handwritten capital letters, along with the date and time. 

James Mayor of Mayor Gallery. Photo: © The Mayor Gallery.

“When this ad came out the world of Parke-Bernet might as well have closed down for two weeks. People would refuse to get into the elevator with me, while others would clap and cheer,” Mayor recalled. “People on the board were sending the catalogue to the executives in London. Others said, ‘show this to James’s father,’ not realizing they wouldn’t get the reaction they were hoping for.”

At an ensuing boardroom showdown there was discord about whether Mayor should be suspended. “The English and [auctioneer] Bob Woolley voted for me, and the rest of the Americans against me,” said Mayor. “And so I stayed on.”  

What was the price Mayor paid for his advertising stunt? Just that, Mayor had to personally pay for the cost of the advertisement. But not quite. Mayor said the magazine didn’t have the heart to charge him for the stunt: “I went in to the Artforum office to pay the cost, but John Coplans, the editor in chief at the time, tore the check up.”

The Mayor Gallery is located at 21 Cork Street, first floor, London.

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