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Are Drawings the Best Deal in 20th Century Art?

An artificially depressed market, hiding in plain sight.
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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.