The last time Roy Lichtenstein’s painting of a man peering through a peephole was sold at auction, in 1988, it fetched $2.1 million, a record for the artist.
Now the 4-foot-square canvas is the top lot at the big November sales of Christie’s International, which expects it to sell for $35 million to $45 million on Nov. 8.
Painted in 1961, just as Lichtenstein (1923-1997) was shifting from Abstract Expressionism to Pop Art, it is one of the first pieces featuring the artist’s signature speech bubbles, Ben-Day dots and stark color combinations.
In the center of a solid black field, the square-jawed man looks intently through a speakeasy-style round opening. Part of his face is covered with faint, red Ben-Day dots, painted by hand. Pencil marks appear here and there.
“I can see the whole room ... and there’s nobody in it!” the speech bubble says. The statement also serves as the painting’s title.
Based on a picture by William Overgard for a Steve Roper comic strip crime story, the painting once belonged to Emily and Burton Tremaine, major postwar art collectors, who lent it to exhibitions at the Guggenheim Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. After being auctioned off in 1988, it has remained in the same undisclosed American collection.
“It’s a pivotal, iconic painting with great provenance,” said Brett Gorvy, Christie’s chairman and international head of postwar and contemporary art.
“There’s no romance, there’s no woman and it’s quite dark, but it’s a marvelous painting,” said Lucy Mitchell-Innes, co-owner of Mitchell-Innes & Nash gallery in New York, which has mounted four solo Lichtenstein exhibitions in the past 10 years. “It epitomizes Roy’s use of irony, which is the most important theme throughout his work.”
Lichtenstein’s auction record of $42.6 million was achieved last year at Christie’s for his 1964 painting depicting a pretty redhead on the phone and titled “Ohhh ... Alright ...” That sale helped boost the artist’s 2010 auction revenue by 638 percent from the previous year, to $112.5 million, according to Artprice.com.
“The most visually exciting and sought-after are his romance and love comics,” said Matthew Armstrong, curator at Don Marron’s Lightyear Capital. “When people think of Lichtenstein, that’s what they think of.”