This look at Wayne Thiebaud’s market—based upon data from our friends at Pi-eX—is available to AMMpro subscribers. Monthly subscriptions begin with the first month free. Feel free to subscribe and cancel before you are billed.
Barney Ebsworth’s art collection is going to light up the November sales this year bringing some extraordinary examples of American Modern and Contemporary art to the market. Yet for all of the excitement that will surround the sale, one lot bought by Ebsworth for an astonishing and record price in 1997 will be missing. It hasn’t been sold privately; it won’t appear in a later auction; it hasn’t been donated to a museum; it appears to be work Ebsworth’s heirs are attached to.
With an overall value targeted around $300m, Ebsworth’s collection doesn’t need Wayne Thiebaud’s 1962 Bakery Counter — which could easily carry a $20-25m estimate — to generate a significant fortune. Ebsworth’s heirs won’t feel a loss but the Contemporary art market might.
The art market thrives when an artist with a substantial body of work sees a broad increase in value. This process is often provoked by redefining the sale of a particularly good, sought-after and impressive work of art. The markets for Rothko, Richter, Basquiat, de Kooning and many others were similary transformed by the sale of single exemplary work.
We used to use the term masterpiece to describe these types of works. It would not be out of line to call Bakery Counter Thiebaud’s masterpiece. This post will look at the last 12 years of Thiebaud’s auction sales. Before we get there, though, it is worth recounting some of the sales history of Theibaud’s great work.
A good deal of the appeal of Bakery Counter lies in its substantial size, early date and the fact that the image depicts Thiebaud’s echt subject matter, cakes and pastries. The artist’s work is far broader than that. Nonetheless, the painter’s taste for sweets sits at the confluence of art history and popular appeal.
One reason Thiebaud’s market has lagged many of his peers is the fact that his work was long considered regional or of minor interest. It took until 2001, when the artist was 80 years old, for the Whitney’s retrospective of that year to have an impact upon his reputation in the wider art world.
That doesn’t mean Thiebaud was invisible to collectors. Indeed, San Francisco’s greatest Contemporary art collector, Hunk Anderson, tried to buy Bakery Counter in the 1980s but he was put off by the seller’s asking price of $100,000. Nearly 20 years and one divorce later, the painting was sold at Christie’s to Barney Ebsworth for $1.7m with fees.
After the sale, Ebsworth is said to have told the consignor that he had wanted the painting for years and stopped bidding well under his limit. In the late 1990s, Andy Warhol’s Orange Marilyn sold for $17m. Late last year it was said to have sold privately for $250m. The rough math on Thiebaud’s Bakery Counter would make it a $25m painting today. But that’s not even accounting for the substantial rise in Thiebaud’s stature over the same period.
For much of the painter’s career, Thiebaud’s market was controlled by the dealer Allan Stone who achieved the best prices in private transactions. It wasn’t until 2007, the wake of the omnivorous Stone’s death that his estate unleashed upon the market a substantial number of Thiebaud’s works.
Again in 2011, there was another flood of work sold. Both times, buyers responded with a strong appetite driving Thiebaud’s average sales price into the mid-$600k range. Even as the top of Thiebaud’s market has gained value, his average prices have never achieved those levels again, according to Blouin’s data. That’s most likely because as many works on paper have sold over the last 20 years as oil paintings on canvas. An equal number of etchings sold in that period as well. That sets up one of the curiosities of the Thiebaud market. Many of the top lots sell in day sales or single owner sales like the Allan Stone auctions.
Pi-eX analyzed the evening sale lots for Thiebaud over the last twelve years. Evening sales are prestige events but Thiebaud does good business outside of those venues.
As the chart, above, shows, the volume of work sold in the $1m to$3m range shot up in 2011 during the second Stone sales. That volume wasn’t seen agains for another two years in 2014-2015 but has since dried up. In 2013, Thiebaud’s top price was achieved with the $6.325m paid for Two Jackpots from 2005.The chart of evening sale overall estimates and hammer prices shows that Thiebaud’s thin trading often falls below expectations. Inflection points were seen in 2011 and 2012 but the market failed to follow through. By 2015, we can see that hammer prices fell below the estimate range effectively switching the market off.
This year Thiebaud’s market has recovered with strong sales for examples of the artist’s Candy Apples. You don’t see those results in these charts because both Christie’s and Sotheby’s saw huge prices well above estimates for the candy apples in November of 2017 and May of 2018 during day sales.
One exception was a 1962 painting of Cake Rows that was offered at Christie’s in May’s Evening sale and made nearly twice the high estimate with premium.
On an average price basis, above, you can see the Evening sales for Thiebaud had gone through a long slide from the 2012 high down to 2017’s capitulation. Even so, we can see from the chart below that good examples of the artist’s work that appear in Evening sales do sell. Except for 201 and 2015, the works that sell above the low estimate far outweigh the value of the works that are bought in or sold at compromise prices. The few works bought and resold, like 1969’s Tie Rack which was bought in the Allan Stone day sale of 2007 for a very strong $3.4m. It got sold again in an Evening sale in 2015 for $4.085m, hardly a strong gain for the seller.
With some momentum building in the Thiebaud market, the artist’s representation by Acquavella which helped with the show now closing at New York’s Morgan Library, and potential for more supply to enter the market, a signal market price like the Bakery Counter was sure to achieve might have unleashed a great deal more activity.
That will come someday.