Andy Warhol, the most preeminent Pop artist, rarely found himself humbled. But, when he came before Roy Lichtenstein’s earliest works, Warhol abandoned his own experiments with images of superheroes taken from comic books. As Warhol told curator Henry Geldzahler, “Roy was doing comics so well.”
Many others have likewise found themselves impressed by Lichtenstein’s works, which often take the form of comic-like images with Ben-Day dots left visible. On the market, Lichtenstein rains as one of the most expensive Pop artists out there.
The most expensive Lichtenstein ever may be his 1962 painting Masterpiece, which was once owned by Agnes Gund. Steven Cohen reportedly gave her $165 million for it in 2017 in a private sale; Gund then used the money to fund a new initiative focused on mass incarceration, criminal justice, and the arts. Public auctions of Lichtenstein’s work have so far not come close to that figure. Still, the artist’s top ten public sale records establish him among the ranks of the highest-selling artists at auction and a market bellwether.
Records are still mounting for the Pop master. Last July, Lichtenstein’s Nude with Joyous Painting (1994), which depicts a blonde heroine appropriated from a D.C. comic book series, sold at Christie’s for $46.2 million. The result made it the third-highest price paid for a work by the artist at auction.
Below, a list of the artists’s top public sales.
In November 2015, Christie’s sold Nurse for $95.4 million. Unlike many big-ticket items, this one had just a single bidder. Speculation began to ensue: Was the phone bidder who bought the work none other than Christie’s owner François Pinault acting as a third-party guarantor? As of 2021, the buyer remains unknown, though the work’s esteemed provenance is more certain. The work was consigned by Boston collector Barbara Lee, who purchased the painting by phone at a Sotheby’s sale in May 1995 for just $1.7 million. Before landing with Barbara Lee, Nurse had passed through the hands of several famous collectors, including Peter Brant and Karl Stroher. It had even once been held by Leon Kraushar, a famed Pop art collector who, in one photograph published by Life magazine, is seen posing near Nurse in his bedroom.
Lichtenstein riffed on the work of other artists throughout his career, rendering famed motifs derived from Monet, Picasso, and others via Ben-Day dots, as though they were blow-ups of images in comic books. This painting is one of three Lichtenstein based on works by Picasso during the 1960s. Lichtenstein’s Dora Maar portrait sold in May 2013 during a Christie’s sale to collector Laurence Graff, who bid for the work himself in the New York salesroom against three others. With a pre-sale estimate of $30 million, the work was a part of a blockbuster $495 million auction.
In May 2012, Sleeping Girl (1964) sold at Sotheby’s in New York, exceeding its pre-sale estimate of $30 million. In the early 1960s, when Lichtenstein began sourcing images from DC, he relied heavily on a comics series called Girls’ Romance, from which he took an image of a teary-eyed blonde. For his paintings, Lichtenstein made minor adjustments to that character—here, for example, she is shown sleeping instead of crying.
In July 2020, Christie’s offered Nude with Joyous Painting (1994), featuring the artist’s signature blonde comic girl. It formed the cover lot of Christie’s “ONE” sale, the first major auction that the house held following a months-long pandemic lockdown. The work was estimated at around $30 million and saw competitive bidding from Hong Kong and New York. Ultimately, the bidder on the phone with Christie’s Hong Kong specialist Francis Belin in Hong Kong won the work for a hammer price of $40.5 million, or $46.2 million with buyer’s fees.
This four-foot square work came to Christie’s New York, where it sold for $43.2 million in November 2011, landing solidly within its pre-sale expectation of $35 million–$45 million. Produced in 1961, it was featured in the Whitney Museum’s 1983 exhibition “The Comic Art Show: Cartoons in Painting and Popular Culture.” Sourced from a cartoon, the image Lichtenstein appropriated pays homage to Surrealist artist René Magritte’s 1932–35 work L’Oeil (The Eye). The work was once owned by Connecticut modern and contemporary art collectors Emily and Burton Tremaine.
Chicago art collector and plastic industry mogul Stefan Edlis sold The Ring (Engagement) at Sotheby’s in New York in May 2015—the same year he and his wife, Gael Neeson, donated $400 million worth of art to the Art Institute of Chicago. The Ring (1962) was expected to sell for $50 million, but eventually went for a below-estimate final price of $41.7 million. The disappointment was hardly a loss for Edlis, who had acquired the work in 1997 at auction for just $2.2 million.
In 2005, Ohhh…Alright… (1964) went for $42.6 million in Christie’s November sale, at the time setting a record. Its storied provenance included years in the collections of Steve Martin and Steve Wynn. Lichtenstein took this work’s red-headed weeping protagonist from the DC comic book Secret Hearts.
Seductive Girl (1996), from Lichtenstein’s late-career “Nude” series, came to auction for the first time in November 2013 at Christie’s in New York. It sold for $31.5 million, against an estimate of $22 million. The original image came from Lichtenstein’s central source, the DC comic Love Me Not for Beauty Only.
Estimated at $30 million–$50 million when it came to auction at Christie’s in 2019, Kiss III (1962) sold for $31.1 million. Completed the same year Lichtenstein opened his inaugural solo show at the Leo Castelli Gallery in New York, the work was sold by Robert B. and Beatrice C. Mayer, a Chicago collecting couple known for their holdings of American postwar art.
Alongside his more popular depictions of nudes and swooning couples, Lichtenstein also produced a 1964–65 series depicting brushstrokes, a parody of the Abstract Expressionist mode of art-making that was dominant at the time. In May 2017, Red and White Brushstrokes (1965) just barely reached its pre-sale estimate of $25 million–$35 million, selling at a Sotheby’s evening sale for $28.5 million.