Wayne Thiebaud’s Painting of Pinball Machines Could Fetch $25 Million at Christie’s, Shattering the Artist’s Auction Record

The 1962 painting is the latest high-profile lot to be announced for Christie's inventive global round-robin auction on July 10.

Wayne Thiebaud, Four Pinball Machines (1962). Photo courtesy of Christie's Images Ltd 2020.

Conventional wisdom has it that collectors tend to hold on to trophies during moments of uncertainty. But Christie’s has managed to secure another high-value lot for its upcoming “One” sale, the relay-style auction that will be streamed online and held in different salesrooms around the world in July.

Today, the auction house announced it would offer Wayne Thiebaud’s Four Pinball Machines (1962), which it touts (in bold in the press release, no less) as “the most important work by the artist in private hands.” The painting of a row of pinball machines carries an estimate of $18 million to $25 million and is expected to more than double the artist’s previous auction record of $8.5 million, set by Encased Cakes (2011) in November 2019. The pinball painting carries a guarantee, so is certain to sell.

Four Pinball Machines is a painting that combines all of the qualities that people treasure about Thiebaud’s work: an iconic subject imbued with American nostalgia, the joyful palette and the masterly quality of the expressionistic brushstrokes,” said Alex Rotter, Christie’s chairman of postwar and contemporary art, in a statement.

The painting was last offered at auction almost 40 years ago, in 1981, when it fetched $143,000—a record for the artist at the time. It was purchased by real-estate developer Donald Bren, according to the published provenance. The following year, Bren sold the painting to San Francisco investment manager Ken Siebel and his wife Judy, Bloomberg reports. Seibel—who is the father-in-law of California governor Gavin Newsom—said he was selling for estate-planning reasons.

“It’s certainly one of the very best investments,” Seibel told Bloomberg.

Thiebaud, who turns 100 in November, is known for his sugar-tinged take on the Pop movement, creating heavily impastoed images of cakes, gumball machines, and ties that evoke nostalgia and desire.

Four Pinball Machines was created during a pivotal year for the artist, when he opened his first solo show at the Allan Stone Gallery in New York (where this work was first sold) and was the subject of a solo show at the de Young Museum in San Francisco. The picture was last seen publicly more than 20 years ago, when it was included in the artist’s retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.

Notably, a study for Four Pinball Machines, also from 1962, fetched $3.6 million at Sotheby’s last spring, exceeding its $3 million estimate and coming in at number 13 on the artist’s list of top auction results, according to the Artnet Price Database.

The final version of Four Pinball Machines will be offered in the New York leg of the July 10 round-robin auction, which will also take place in Hong Kong, London, and Paris. The sale is a substitute for the marquee Impressionist, Modern, postwar, and contemporary sales, which are normally held in New York in May and in London in June.

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