This report on the Roy Lichtenstein market using data provided by Pi-eX is available to AMMpro subscribers. (The first month of AMMpro is free and subscribers are welcome to sign up for the first month and cancel before they are billed.)
No artist is more closely associated with Pop art than Roy Lichtenstein, the painter who helped to usher in post-modernism by elevating mass-culture comic strips into high art. Despite his unquestionable historical importance and broad recognition beyond art collectors and museums, Lichtenstein’s market has somewhat lagged even as the art market exploded over the last two decades. His prolific peer Andy Warhol played a central role in the growth of Contemporary art prices that Lichtenstein had not, that is, until relatively recently. From there it has been a slow burn but still a bright one.
In 2012, the Art Institute of Chicago and Tate London collaborated on a retrospective that brought the artist new attention. In response, auction results rose. A report published by London-based Pi-eX analyzed Lichtenstein’s 2007 to 2019 sales from the evening auctions at Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Phillips. (For clarity, Pi-eX uses hammer prices, not prices with the buyer’s premium added. Consequently, all prices in this report will be based upon the hammer prices.) Pi-eX found the highest number works (between 25 and 30) traded in 2013, the year following the Lichtenstein survey. The evening sale lots generated $80 million in sales with another $60.5 million taking place throughout the year, according to public auction records.
Lichtenstein’s auction record moved up each year from 2010 and 2015 as buyers contended for his works from the 1960s and 70s. In the early 2000s the artist’s auction prices had picked up but suffered a downturn in the aftermath of the financial crisis. In 2010, his market made a strong recovery, jumping to a sum in excess of $60 million in total hammer price in the evening sales, more than six times the total achieved the year prior in 2009. From 2011 to 2012, the hammer total went up from $60 million to $100 million, an increase of 67% led by the $40 million sale of his 1964 painting Sleeping Girl at Sotheby’s New York.
In May 2013, Lichtenstein’s version of Dora Maar portrait by Picasso, expected to achieve $30 million, sold for $56.1 million during a Christie’s New York sale. The work set a new record for the artist, surpassing the price paid for Sleeping Girl by $10 million. From 2013 to 2016 Lichtenstein’s prices saw a downward trend, posting hammer total below $20 million which was the second lowest next to 2009.
In 2015, Christie’s Artist’s Muse Evening Sale in November a Lichtenstein with the highest estimate ever to appear at auction was sold. The sale of Nurse from Boston collector Barbara Lee sold for $95.4 million on a single bid. The sale remains controversial. No other Lichtenstein had ever sold at this level. Although the work sold to the still unknown third-party-guarantor, it set the current record for the artist. That Spring, Stefan Edlis sold The Ring (Engagement) at Sotheby’s New York, the same year he donated a monumental $400 million gift to the Art Institute of Chicago. The painting made $41.7 million, below an estimate of $50 million. The chart below illustrates the total hammer price elevated to $180 million, with the estimate for Nurse made available by the auction house upon request.
After 2013, Lichtenstein’s sales fell steadily until 2016 when there was a contraction in sales totals in the overall marketplace. It wasn’t until 2019 when prices achieved $75 million that Lichtenstein was back at the peak 2013 level. The uptick came in 2017, also a high point for the overall market. The annual UBS and Art Basel report published in 2018 found that the international art economy realized a sales total of $63.7 billion that year, up 12% from 2016 and the first rise seen since 2014. In 2017, hedge-fund investor Steven Cohen purchased Lichtenstein’s 1962 Masterpiece in a private sale from New York mega-patron Agnes Gund for $165 million, establishing the highest price paid for a work by the artist. Auction results remain well below that threshold.
In 2018, the artist’s estate foundation pledged a gift of nearly 200 artworks to the Whitney Museum of American Art— allowing the museum to choose a selection of works. Among other media, the Whitney chose 5 paintings that feature styles unrepresented in their permanent collection, including early period examples like Pilot (1948) and Untitled (ca. 1959—60).
In just the summer 2020 series, Lichtenstein’s turnover across the three top evening sales was $71.7 million. The 2020 results put Lichtenstein ahead of Warhol for the first time since May 2017. While Lichtenstein’s market is competitive with the Pop icon, unlike Warhol, his brand is less global— with his institutional and collector presence concentrated largely in the the U.S. and Europe. Warhol’s overall output throughout his career is also ten times larger than Lichtenstein’s—who produced around 5,000 works across various media according to artist’s estate foundation. In the last attempt among vendors at meaningfully expanding Lichtenstein’s global reach, Gagosian (who co-represents the Lichtenstein estate with Leo Castelli gallery brought examples from Lichtenstein’s late period “Landscapes in Chinese Style” series to the Hong Kong market in 2011 in an attempt to broaden his international reach. Before the dealer’s showcase, the only other exhibition of Lichtenstein’s work held in Asia was mounted in 1997, the same year of the artist’s death. It happened to feature the same late group of works.
Seller’s expectations haven’t helped the artist’s market either. Lichtenstein’s work has consistently struggled against its auction estimates. According to the Pi-eX report, from 2007 to 2018 45-50% of the Lichtenstein works traded in the evening sales sold at or below the low estimate or were bought in.
During Christie’s ONE sale earlier this Summer, billionaire Lorenzo Ferttita’s guaranteed Nude with Joyous Painting (1994) was offered. Made in the 1990s as part of his late-career “Nudes” series, the painting offered collectors a combination of Lichtenstein’s market-tested themes. Although the seller was advised by dealer Brett Gorvy, and offered with an appealing pre-sale estimate of $30 million, the seller chose to accept a late third-party guarantee. Much to the consignor’s chagrin after accepting a guarantee, there was a bidding war that drove the final sale price to $46.2 million. That’s the artist’s third highest price at auction. Only one other work from the series, Seductive Girl (1996) which sold for $31.5 million in 2013 sits on the list of his top ten auction records.
In the graph featured above, the average hammer price of Lichtenstein’s works traded at top auction houses have seen a 60 percent increase in the past eight years— from $2.8 million in 2008 to $4.5 million realized in 2019. The report illustrates average annual hammer prices leveling from 2011 to 2019 and pre-sale value increasing steadily in the last decade— seeing the average high estimate moved to a new price point of $7 million.
Despite Lichtenstein inheriting Pop Art’s legacy, which is favored at the highest level of the market, the past decade shows a high level of volatility. The report demonstrates how Lichtenstein’s prices have coincided with how the overall art economy is performing, and that as a market bellwether, his prices bounce back after major contractions in sales totals (ie. 2009 and 2016).