Sotheby’s Is Betting Big on Its June Auction With a $30 Million Lichtenstein Brushstroke Painting, Even as the Sales Remain Uncertain

The auction house seems committed to some version of an in-person sale, which will be held the week of June 29.

Roy Lichtenstein's White Brushstroke I (1965). Photo: Sotheby's.

Ever since auction-house salesrooms shuttered around the globe, many market watchers have wondered how the businesses would secure key consignments for their rescheduled evening sales. With no easy way to get trophies physically in front of potential buyers, let alone stage a lively IRL bidding war in a packed room, who would want to take the risk of putting a major lot up for sale?

Now, Sotheby’s has announced that, social distancing or no, it has secured a plum work to offer next month: Roy Lichtenstein’s White Brushstroke I (1965), a Pop-art rendering of a black brushstroke against blue Ben-Day dots. The work carries an estimate of $20 million to $30 million. A spokesperson for Sotheby’s confirmed the work is guaranteed to sell, but would not comment on whether the guarantee came from a third party or from the house itself. (Third-party guarantee deals can be negotiated until mere hours before a sale begins.)

The painting comes from a series of 15 canvases that Lichtenstein completed between 1964 and 1965, a particularly productive and sought-after period for the artist. The brushstroke doubles as a wry take on the Abstract Expressionist style that had dominated the art scene of the preceding decade. Eight examples from the series belong to or have been promised to museums including the Art Institute of Chicago, Kunsthaus Zürich, and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.

Other bodies of work by the artist are more desirable than the brushstrokes at auction—chiefly, his nudes and works based on comic-book panels. The priciest example from this series, Red and White Brushstrokes (1965), fetched $28.3 million (toward the low end of its $25 million-to-$35 million estimate range) at Christie’s New York in May 2017. Notably, the forthcoming White Brushstroke I has a slightly lower estimate than its predecessor—perhaps a reflection of how prices have been recalibrated in light of the current financial climate. Of the top 30 works by Lichtenstein to have sold at auction, two are brushstrokes, according to the Artnet Price Database.

“With its cool, mechanical precision and stunning conceptual depth, Lichtenstein here ushers in the dawn of the Pop-art era,” said David Galperin, head of Sotheby’s contemporary art evening auction in New York, in a statement.

The sale—which has now officially been rescheduled from May to late June, alongside other houses’ marquee spring sales—will also include a number of other high-priced lots, including a Francis Bacon triptych estimated at $60 million and works from the collection of Hunk and Moo Anderson.

It remains to be seen exactly how Sotheby’s will allow for the kind of in-person viewing experience most collectors (and their conservators and art advisors) would require before bidding on such pricey material at a time when much of the world remains on lockdown. In a statement, the auction house promised “creative opportunities for those wishing to preview our exhibitions and participate in our auctions—from in-person and virtual appointment viewings to enhanced digital experiences.”

The announcement of the Lichtenstein consignment also included assurances from Sotheby’s that the work would appear in a live auction the week of June 29, “pending the lifting of certain restrictions and confirmation from the relevant authorities that we can proceed.” (The house has rolled its regular June sales in London and its May New York sales into one event.)

But some remain skeptical. In recent briefings, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has said New York City is likely to reopen considerably later than less affected upstate areas, which are currently scheduled to begin a phased reopening on May 15. A spokesperson for Sotheby’s confirmed the company was in contact with local authorities and but declined to elaborate on safety precautions, such as a cap on bidders permitted to attend in person.

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