Source: Courtesy of Dominique Lévy Gallery

Are Drawings the Best Deal in 20th Century Art?

An artificially depressed market, hiding in plain sight.

Striped Necktie, 1968-1976, by Wayne Thiebaud
Striped Necktie, 1968-1976, by Wayne Thiebaud
Source: Courtesy of Dominique Lévy Gallery

A sweeping show of drawings from the 1960s opened at Dominique Lévy Gallery in New York on January 27, with 69 works spread across two floors of the gallery’s Madison Avenue exhibition space. Organized by Kate Ganz, an art historian, collector, and curator, the show includes artwork by some of the giants of the 20th century—there’s a pencil drawing of a soft-serve cone by Roy Lichtenstein, an acrylic and pencil abstract work by Ellsworth Kelly, and a pencil, watercolor, and ink piece by Jasper Johns. These drawings aren't hasty sketches; they are, for the most part, polished works of art.

Even so, their prices are dramatically less than other work by the same artists in different mediums, such as painting or sculpture. A swirling graphite and soot drawing by Lee Bontecou is on sale for just under $500,000; one of her three-dimensional canvases sold for $1.9 million at Christie’s New York in 2010. A black-and-white silhouette of an ice cream cone (yes, another one) by Wayne Thiebaud, whose paintings of cake counters and candy regularly sell for millions of dollars, just sold for around $200,000, according to the gallery. Even a graphite and watercolor drawing of a dollar by Andy Warhol, which is on sale for just above $6 million, is much less than the $8.8 million someone spent on an (admittedly larger, albeit much later) screen-printed Warhol dollar at Christie’s New York last year.

One Dollar, 1961, by Andy Warhol
One Dollar, 1961, by Andy Warhol
Source: Courtesy of Dominique Lévy Gallery

The discrepancy in price between drawings and works in other mediums isn’t a new phenomenon, and in recent years the drawings market has seen significant gains, benefiting, in large part, from association with the rapid rise of 20th century paintings. Yet the values of drawings have notably lagged behind other mediums, so much so that the gaping divide between works on paper and works on canvas could signal significant room for growth. This is especially true in today's cooling art market, as buyers look to segments beyond traditional trophy paintings.

"If the frenzy has slowed down, and people's large wall space is filled up, there is an opportunity to look more at the intimacy and the small scale of works on paper," said Abigail Asher, a partner in the art advisory firm Guggenheim Asher Associates. "Perhaps now will be a time that people are drawn to those things as a natural reaction to the robust, trophy-end of the market."

To understand the potential of the market for drawings, it’s first important to articulate the reasons drawings have been valued so differently for so long.

Works in Progress

Ice Cream Cone, 1964, by Wayne Thiebaud
Ice Cream Cone, 1964, by Wayne Thiebaud
Source: Courtesy of Dominique Lévy Gallery

Historically, drawings were exclusively considered as incomplete thoughts and gestures.

“For many years, the world thought—wrongly so—that the drawings [were] simply a preparatory study for something,” said Dominique Lévy, the gallerist. Because of their hurried nature, and the fact that the drawings often contained little of an artist’s signature style (just look at the difference between a drawing by Fragonard and a painting by Fragonard), these drawings were often considered inferior.

By the mid-20th century however, that had begun to change. “Then in the 1960s, and a bit before, artists were compelled to do work on paper not just as studies but as tests, and exploration; it was a whole new adventure,” said Lévy. Still, the stigma of works on paper as a lesser artistic expression remained.

Ubiquity

A sketch can take just a few minutes; a painting can take years. For that very reason, drawings “are not as rare,” said Ganz, the curator. “Even with an artist like Rubens, there are many more drawings than finished paintings. Artists draw and they draw and they draw.” With a much larger supply, drawings were considered less special.

Anti-Spectacle

Drawings “are often smaller,” said Lévy. “The scale of a drawing is a special kind of intimacy, it’s not hanging on a big wall with the ‘wow’ factor.” Asher agrees. "They don't have that scale," she said. "They don't have that physical dominance and surface dominance that you find in paintings."

That might be the key. As a rule, big art sells for more than small art. In 2011, a Warhol Mao painting, for instance, sold for $11.1 million at Christie’s in London; a few months later, another Mao sold for $3.4 million at Christie's New York—it was half the size.

Ice Cream Cone, 1963, by Roy Lichtenstein
Ice Cream Cone, 1963, by Roy Lichtenstein
Source: Courtesy of Dominique Lévy Gallery

Un-Tapped Market

Until now, these factors may have kept the market for drawings (relatively) depressed, but they’re not reasons that the market will stay depressed. The perception that a drawing is somehow inherently an incomplete work of art has already been debunked. There might be a lot of drawings out there, but supply and demand rarely affect an artist's market in the long run.

So that leaves the issue of scale, which is harder to argue with: in the art world, more costs more, by and large. But it's not the only factor that should determine price. There are mediocre large works and exceptional small ones. A great work by an artist, in other words, should (and perhaps eventually will) be priced on its merits, not its medium.

"It's the same creative impulse that makes the drawing or the painting," said Ganz. "When Thiebaud drew that beautiful pastel of a tie, it's the same Thiebaud who painted pieces of pie in a glass box; it's the same intellect and it's the same aesthetic."

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