Reminiscent of 70s advertisements, leading American Pop Art artist Tom Wesselmann is renowned for his studies of nudes, smokers and Pop motifs. While the average value of Tom Wesselmann's artwork has experienced a fairly steady 5% growth over the last 5 years, an estimated 77% of his artworks increase in value making investing in a Tom Wesselmann print rather low-risk. The typical price paid now for a Wesselmann print is now £6,502.
The highest price ever paid for a Tom Wesselmann painting was achieved in May 2008, when his Great American Nude No. 48 (1963) installation sold for a staggering £ 5,475,079 (including fees) at Sotheby's in New York.
As Tom Wesselmann’s large body of work continues to perform consistently well at auction and on the wider secondary market, this article explores the most expensive Tom Wesselmann pieces sold at auction to date.
(US$10, 681, 000)
Produced in 1963, when the Pop Art movement was still in formation, Great American Nude No. 48 (1963) was seen as both genre-defining and shocking; combining two-dimensional objects with stage set-like painting, the work centres around a naked female, laid out on a brightly-coloured bed that deconstructs traditional rules of perspective.
The property of German collectors Helga and Walther Lauffs since 1971, the painting has spent much of its life on loan to Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm Museum. In May 2008, however, it shattered its pre-sale estimate by almost US$3 million, selling for an enormous US$10,681,000 at Sotheby’s in New York – a record for Wesselmann.
Smoker No 5 (Mouth No. 19) is a standout example of one of the most recognisable features of American Pop Art – artist Tom Wesselmann’s so-called Mouth paintings. Marking a departure from the artist’s nude paintings of the early 1960s, this 1969 piece formed part of the Smoker series, which started in 1965.
A depiction of the mouth of Wesselmann’s friend and model, Peggy Sarno, it is marked for its bold and graphic depiction of the cigarette: an icon of post-war American consumer culture. Unseen by the general public since its exhibition in New York in 1970, Smoker No. 5 (Mouth No. 19) fetched £3,871,250 at Sotheby’s London in March 2017.
Often grouped together with other examples of American Pop Artist Tom Wesselmann’s so-called Mouth paintings, Smoker No. 9 (1973) constitutes a beautifully smooth depiction of another icon of post-war American culture: the cigarette. In May 2008, the work sold for an astounding US$6,761,000 at Christie’s New York, performing just as well as closely related paintings like Smoker No. 5 (Mouth No. 19).
A foremost feature of the Pop Art imaginary, here the cigarette finds itself between a pair of Wesselmann’s signature ‘lips’, painted from drawings of friend and model, Peggy Sarno. A red-hot cigarette end clashes with the deep crimson of the model’s lips and fingernails, evoking the seductive techniques of American consumer advertising. Between these suggestive motifs, the thick fog of tobacco smoke serves to obscure and beguile.
Smoker No. 17, produced in 1975, is a prime example of the artist’s impact on the bold, hard-edged, and sexually charged iconographies of the Pop Art movement. Featuring a signature subject of the artist – the mouth – Smoker No. 17 is an oil painting and part of Wesselmann’s Smoker series, inaugurated in 1967.
Like Smoker No. 9, it features the hands and lips of model Peggy Sarno. The work’s smooth forms foreground a veritable icon of post-war American culture: the cigarette. Placing these motifs within a singular image, in May 2007 the painting outperformed its pre-sale estimate at Sotheby’s New York, selling for an eye-popping US$5,864,000.
In May of 2013, another of American Pop Art icon Tom Wesselmann’s ‘Great American Nudes’ sold for US$4,085,000 at auction. Becoming the 6th-most expensive example of Wesselmann’s work to date, Great American Nude No. 44 (1963) is an intimate mixed media piece depicting a female nude and an interior space.
Comprising an amalgamation of board-mounted acrylic and paper collage, a radiator, telephone, coat and door, the work is a particularly striking example of Wesselmann’s now iconic œuvre. Combining both male and female gazes, the work centres upon the nude figure of Wesselmann’s wife Claire, who is observed by a female head – a copy of a Renoir painting – constrained by a circular frame.
Part of American Pop Artist Tom Wesselmann’s so-called Great American Nudes series, Great American Nude No. 21 (1961) realised an astounding US$4,114,500 at Sotheby’s New York.
The sale, which took place in November 2008, saw the painting outperform other key works in the iconic 1960s series, such as Great American No. 34 (1962) and Great American Nude No. 44 (1963). As such, it set the record for the 5th-most expensive sale of Wesselmann’s work to date. A standout piece from the high-point of the Pop Art movement, the painting combines Wesselmann’s signature approach to the nude with real ‘found’ objects of ‘60s Americana.
November 2018 saw the sale of Tom Wesselmann’s Great American Nude No. 34 (1962) at Christie’s auction house in New York. Realising US$3,196,250, the work came close to its pre-sale estimate, becoming the 7th-most expensive Wesselmann painting of all time.
Much like other works in the Great American Nudes series, the work combines a bold, Matisse-like depiction of the female form and a number of references to both American political history and popular culture; adorning its brightly coloured surface are objects ranging from fruit and a television to Grecian Pottery and the ‘Star-Spangled Banner’.
Began in 1975, Smoker #21 is part of Tom Wesselmann’s celebrated Smoker series. Unlike previous paintings like Smoker #5, Smoker #9 and Smoker #17, here Wesselmann removed any depiction of the cigarette, focusing instead on the gesture of the lips opening up to exhale.
Starting from the 1960s, Wesselmann began moving away from depictions of his famous Great American Nudes series to privilege fetishistic and voyeuristic depictions of female body parts – most notably, the female mouth. Alluring and seductive, Smoker #21 was unveiled at Christie’s London on 28 June 2022 and realised £2,442,000, right in the middle of the £2 – 3 million estimate.
A prime example of Tom Wesselmann’s signature approach to the female form - his most significant thematic obsession - 18 Year Old On The Beach (1984) constitutes one of the artist’s most expensive sale prices of all time.
Selling at Sotheby’s New York for US$3,015,000 in November 2018, the piece significantly outperformed its pre-sale estimate of US$1,000,000-$1,500,000. Recalling Wesselmann’s 1990s reworkings of paintings he made during the ‘60s, the painting constitutes a classical female nude. Referencing mass produced images of so-called ‘pin-up models’, 18 Year Old On The Beach testifies to the increasingly eroticised consumer culture of post-war America.
Great American Nude No. 73 (1965) is one of the most famous examples of the so-called ‘Great American Nude’ paintings by American Pop Artist Tom Wesselmann. With a pre-sale estimate of US$2,500,000 - $3,500,000, the work realised US$3,166,000 at Sotheby’s New York in November 2021.
The ‘Great American Nudes’ series began in 1961 and were initially limited to a patriotic colour palette of red, white, and blue. Distilling the sexualised consumer culture of the 1960s into one decisive image, this particular painting recalls other examples of Wesselmann’s brazenly erotic works, such as the 18 Year Old On The Beach (1983). Depicting a female nude, the piece is heavily inspired by odalisque paintings of the 19th century and reinterpretations of the human figure by artists of the 20th century like Henri Matisse.
Tom Wesselmann’s famed ‘Great American Nude’ series comprises some of the most iconic images in contemporary art history. Encapsulating the aggressively sexualised consumer culture of the 1960s, the series has time and time again achieved record sales for the artist.
Great American Nude No. 49 (1963), is no different. Realising US$3,012,500 at Sotheby’s New York in May 2017, the painting established a record for the 10th-most expensive work ever sold by Cincinnati-born Wesselmann. Depicting a female figure reclining outstretched and surrounded by bright, distinctly ‘60s colours, it references the odalisque paintings of Neo-classicist and Orientalist movements – two artistic styles popular during the 19th century.
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