Since the pandemic shutdown in March, much anticipation has circulated around the leading works coming to rescheduled auctions in June and July at the top auction houses. Following the announcement of their global ONE auction, Christie’s has secured a major work by postwar mainstay Wayne Thiebaud to go up for sale in the New York leg of their marquee modern and contemporary evening auction on July 10. The work is expected to sell for $18 million–$25 million, more than double Thiebaud’s existing record of $8.5 million, achieved in November 2019, when Encased Cakes (2011) sold in a Sotheby’s contemporary art evening sale, surpassing an estimate of $6 million–$8 million.
Between 1956 and 1962, Thiebaud made several depictions of arcade games, of which Four Pinball Machines is the largest. At 68 by 72 inches, Four Pinball Machines (1962) hails from the artist’s early period in the same year he started showing with New York dealer, Allan Stone. Following his debut at Stone, New York dealer Sidney Janis also featured Thiebaud in the formative 1962 survey of American Pop art in the International Exhibition of the New Realists.
According to Christie’s, the work is one of the most important from the artist’s oeuvre still in private hands. Out of the public eye for two decades, the piece also carries an exhibition record that proves its rank among the most important examples of Thiebaud’s work. The painting was originally purchased from Christie’s in 1981 for just $143,000 by real estate developer Donald Bren, owner of the Irvine Company. It was showcased in 1985–86 at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Newport Harbor Museum of Art (now the Orange County Museum of Art), for the latter of which Bren donated the land and serves as a trustee. The work featured in Thiebaud’s seminal traveling retrospective in 2001 at the Whitney Museum of American Art. The seller this time is investment executive Ken Siebel, founder and chairman of California-based wealth management firm Private Wealth Partners. He bought the piece from Bren in 1982, one year after the Christie’s auction, in a deal facilitated by Allan Stone, with whom Siebel and his wife, Judy, attended the sale. Bloomberg reports that the Siebels had been interested in the painting at that time, but chose not to bid against Bren, whom they felt wanted it more.
Long dubbed a regional artist, it wasn’t until the major Whitney show, when he was 80, that Thiebaud’s acclaim began to gather. The Christie’s sale of the estate of dealer Allan Stone, following his death in 2007, brought a trove of major Thiebaud works to the market; another sale took place at Sotheby’s in 2011.
“It is always a privilege to have the opportunity to present a painting that is categorically recognized as one of the best works that an artist has ever created, but in this case it is particularly exciting given its prominence within the canon of Pop art,” says Alex Rotter, chairman of Post-War and Contemporary Art at Christie’s New York, noting the painting’s scheme coveted for its “iconic subject imbued with American nostalgia.” Christie’s has confirmed the upcoming lot is guaranteed.
Influenced by the still lifes of Italian modernist Giorgio Morandi, Thiebaud’s acclaim grew from his glossy renderings of cafeteria and diner food and confections. His realist style, reminiscent of the golden ad age in America, has become a staple of the Pop art movement associated with American postwar consumerism, placing him among the likes of Warhol and Lichtenstein. Drawing influence from his ad agency days in Los Angeles and New York in the mid 1950s, the centenarian painter’s long-held affinity for commercial art, the basis of appropriation art of the postwar era, has separated him from his New York pop contemporaries.