The Hot Bid: Unique Roy Lichtenstein enameled panel could fetch $1.2M

Roy Lichtenstein (American, 1923-1997) ‘COMPOSITION,’ porcelain enamel on metal, 24in. x 77½in. Executed in 1969, this work is unique. Collection of Gunter Sachs, St. Mortiz, Switzerland (acquired directly from the artist). Image is courtesy of Sotheby’s

What you seeCOMPOSITION, a porcelain enamel panel commissioned from Roy Lichtenstein in 1969. Sotheby’s estimates it at $900,000 to $1.2 million. [Note: It’s shown here upside-down.]

The expert: Nicole Schloss, Head of Sotheby’s Day Auctions of Contemporary Art in New York.

How often did Lichtenstein make porcelain enamel panels? Is this it? There are a few nuances to unpack here. In 1964, Lichtenstein began creating enameled panels in limited editions of six or eight. He’d send schematic drawings to the fabricator, who would make the pieces. Unlike the other panels Lichtenstein did, this one is unique.

Did Gunter Sachs see one of those limited edition Lichtenstein panels and commission one from him for his St. Moritz residence? Essentially, yes. Lichtenstein met Sachs on the beach at Southampton in 1968. Sachs, by then, was well-known in the art world as a patron and a critic. I think he came to meet Lichtenstein through Andy Warhol. Once they met, they started a discussion about commissioned works. Sachs made this fabulous apartment in the penthouse [of Badrutt’s Palace in St. Moritz, Switzerland] dedicated to displaying pop art in every form. It was a pop art haven, almost. It spoke to the type of person Gunter Sachs was, loving and living with his art.

What are the dimensions of the panel? 24 by 77½ inches, a shape that was meant to fit a specific area in Sachs’s apartment.

Where in the bathroom was this panel installed? Sachs had a bedroom and bathroom en suite. This panel ran the width of the area below his double sink in the bathroom.

So it needed to be enamel. Exactly. Sachs and Lichtenstein exchanged letters about the subject, and they developed it together. There were two panels – the other has a Leda and the Swan theme, and it ran the width of his bathtub. The two panels are considered a conceptual pair, but two very different works. The other one has been in a private collection for seven to eight years now.

Is any of the correspondence between Sachs and Lichtenstein included with the panel? It’s not part of the lot. We don’t have it. We have asked the Lichtenstein Foundation for a copy of it. It’s a dialogue –not just one-sided by either party. Sachs wanted objects that were beautiful in his home, and Lichtenstein wanted to produce something current with what he was working on. He was starting to conceptualize other vehicles for his Pop vernacular – sunrises, hot dogs. In the late 1960s, it merges into his Modern painting series, a comment on modernity and Modernism. He was looking at Léger and Sonia Delaunay, and he put his own very colorful, Pop-y spin on it.

When was the panel removed from the penthouse apartment? Sotheby’s sold Sachs’s estate in May 2012. The panel was taken out ahead of the sale.

What condition is it in? It’s in exceptional condition. The enamel has stayed bright and fresh and reflective throughout its existence. It looks like it was made yesterday. It [this condition] is what you look for, especially if it’s used.

Is this one panel or two? It’s one single panel, a single piece of metal with enamel on top of it. The sun over the lake looks like it’s a dividing element, but it’s one single panel.

What’s it like in person? It’s impressive. It holds its own in our gallery. It pulls you in. Your eye wants to follow the curve of the rainbow. It’s really an exciting work to see in the flesh. It’s much brighter than it looks in the illustration. It’s quite vibrant.

What’s the world auction record for a Lichtenstein porcelain enamel panel? It’s Crying Girl, from 1964, the fourth in an edition of five. It sold at Christie’s New York in November 2015 for $13.3 million.

How did you come up with the estimate? We looked up what it sold for last time – $800,000 to $850,000 in 2012 [converted from British pounds]. The market for Lichtenstein has changed significantly since then. Lichtenstein’s record is $95.3 million. We’ve seen $40 million and $50 million prices for the artist for canvases from the 1960s. We also looked at editioned enamel works. They’ve sold for $4 million to $12 million when they feature the iconic women Lichtenstein was known for in the 1960s. It’s an abstract work, and it’s an enticing estimate. And there’s truly nothing like it available.

How does the Gunter Sachs provenance add value? It’s a great name to attach to any work. The fact that he commissioned it, had a hand in what it looked like, and lived with it for 50 years really adds to it. Having a huge name associated with a work of art adds quality and rarity. That’s what collectors look for.

Why will this piece stick in your memory? It’s a fantastic summation of everything Lichtenstein was doing in the 1960s. You have the BEN-Day dots and the primary colors. It really stands out as a unique and exceptional work. Your eye wants to linger over it.

Is there anything else you’d like to say about the Lichtenstein panel? It was displayed upside-down in Gunter Sachs’s apartment. The correct orientation is as we have it in the catalog, with the moon on top and the reflection at the bottom. But you can display it in your home however you like.

Why did Sachs display it upside-down? Was it an error? I wouldn’t say it’s an error. Owner’s artistic license, we’ll call it. He liked it that way, for whatever reason. We’ll never know the true reason.

How to bid: Roy Lichtenstein’s COMPOSITION is lot 137in the Contemporary Art Day Auction at Sotheby’s New York on May 17, 2019.

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By SHEILA GIBSON STOODLEY

Sheila Gibson Stoodley is a journalist and the author of The Hot Bid, which features intriguing lots coming up at auction. Follow her on Twitter at @SGSwritereditor.