Despite Roy Lichtenstein's legendary status, the November 2000 auctions in New York demonstrated that his market is by no means a slam dunk. At Christie's, a very attractive painting from his well-regarded "Reflections" series failed to sell. The work, Reflections on Thud!, depicted a Tyrannosaurus Rex in the process of violently crashing to earth.
The painting measured 55 by 96 inches, was painted in 1990, and was estimated to sell for $1 million-$1.5 million. Sadly, the bidding never climbed higher than $800,000. Dealers complained that the painting was too large -- but that was a lame excuse. A few lots deeper into the sale, a painting from Lichtenstein's architectural "Entablatures" series also bit the dust. Estimated at $300,000-$500,000, it passed quietly at $170,000.
On the positive side, a handsome bronze sculpture, Goldfish Bowl (an homage to a Matisse painting), sold nicely above its $350,000-$450,000 estimate and brought $611,000. The sculpture's accompanying drawing also did well, selling for $70,500.
Outside of the auction arena, in a brief survey of gallery owners and private dealers, there was talk of heavy demand for Lichtensteins with the usual complaints about the difficulty of finding material.
Given the conflicted results of the recent Lichtenstein market, what's the bottom line? Buy anything of quality and pay up. Although Lichtenstein had a long and productive career, with the exception of his prints, he underproduced rather than overproduced. Demand for his work should grow over the years and there simply aren't enough unique works to go around. His market is also very strong in Europe, probably more so than for any Pop artist other than Andy Warhol.
One theory as to why there will always be interest in Lichtenstein is that the work reproduces so well. In fact, the strong graphic quality of the work encourages magazines to illustrate Lichtenstein -- disproportionately more than almost any other artist. In general, do not underestimate this factor when it comes to evaluating the market potential of an artist. For instance, look at the frequency with which Damien Hirst's "Dot" paintings seem to crop up in print.
However, the most important factor to consider is that Lichtenstein is a true innovator. By appropriating a comic book format for his paintings, complete with benday dots, primary colors, and simplification of subject matter, Lichtenstein was able to co-opt any imagery and turn it into his own.
If you do a mental survey of his career, it becomes almost impossible to remember all of the ground he covered. There were paintings about paintings (interpretations of Picasso and Mondrian), paintings about architecture (the Pyramids), paintings about romance (the early Cartoons), paintings about traditional subject matter (Landscapes, Nudes and Still Lifes), and on and on.
For a single artist to successfully re-interpret such a wide swath of art history and popular culture is impressive. To do so with such a consistent level of quality is astounding.
As far as buying opportunities, the veteran dealer James Goodman once commented that the Lichtensteins that brought the biggest prices had recognizable subject matter. For instance, you were better off buying a painting of a bunch of grapes rather than a work that was pure abstraction. Yet, virtually all of Lichtenstein's abstract series, including the Modern Paintings, Entablatures, Mirrors, Perfect/Imperfect Paintings and Brushstrokes within Paintings, are pretty terrific and better than 95 percent of what's out there. It is with these bodies of work that the most potential for appreciation lies.
A final thought is that Lichtenstein's drawings are a relative bargain. A good drawing can be had for as little as $35,000. Though small (most are postcard-size images on a larger sheet of paper), the well-developed ones pack a punch. Since the drawings are working studies for paintings, they offer valuable insight into the artist's thought process.
Lichtenstein drawings also have a wonderful hands-on quality that seems missing from so much of today's fabricated art. Although they are not masterful like David Hockney drawings, they are effective. Market-wise, the drawings are something akin to buying the worst home in the best neighborhood -- they always appreciate.
Recommended reading: Roy Lichtenstein by Diane Waldman (the catalogue for the artist's Guggenheim Museum retrospective).
RICHARD POLSKY is a private dealer specializing in post-1960 works of art. Questions or comments can be directed to him in San Francisco at at 415-885-1809 or Polskyart@aol.com.