Auction  August 20, 2021  Rina Rich Langer

Thiebaud's Rise in Price Verifies Late-Career Trends at Auction

Courtesy of Christie's.

Wayne Thiebaud, Detail of Toweling Off, 1968. Oil on canvas. 29 7/8 x 23 3/4 in.

Wayne Thiebaud’s painting of a young tennis player sold for almost  $8.5 million on May 13, 2021, nearly five times the Christie’s estimate of $1.2–1.8 million. Although it did not break the record for sale of a work by the 100-year-old California artist—that honor belongs to Four Pinball Machines, which sold for $19.1 million in July of 2020—it shines light on the phenomenal rise in prices for late-career artists of his stature.

Thiebaud, best known for his candy-colored pies and cupcakes lushly rendered in rows of open space, painted Toweling Off in 1968 as one of four Wimbledon tennis paintings executed during a shift in his subject to the human figure. The painter himself is a lifelong tennis player, who still plays every week along with his younger friends, one in his 70s and two in their 80s. 

Toweling Off depicts the athlete’s face buried in a towel, the creases of which cast an intense shadow below her waist. The painterly folds in the white towel and the corresponding vertical pleats in her tennis skirt are tactile and plush, evoking the fabrics depicted in the formal portraits of masters such as John Singer Sargent and James McNeill Whistler

Courtesy Christie's.

Wayne Thiebaud, Toweling Off, 1968. Oil on canvas; 29 7/8 x 23 3/4 in.

Toweling Off was sold by a private collector who acquired the work from the gallery Allan Stone Projects in 1974. It had not been seen in public since it was exhibited at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art from September to November of 1985. 

Despite his reputation for still life, Thiebaud has said that figure painting is, “Significantly, the most important study the painter can pursue.” That offers one explanation for why Toweling Off so far exceeded its estimate. 

Figurative art came back strongly in the first ‘post-pandemic’ auction held by Christie’s in May 2021. Alice Neel’s interior painting Dr. Finger’s Waiting Room (1966), buoyed by the artist’s solo retrospective People Come First at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (March 22–August 1, 2021), sold for a record $3 million against an estimate of $600,000 to $800,000.

Another explanation may simply be Thiebaud’s longevity and long career. The gold standard is Gerhard Richter, 89, who continues to set records at auction in the sixth decade of his career.

Courtesy Sotheby's

Gerhard Richter, Abstraktes Bild (649-2), 1987. Oil on canvas. 78 3/4 by 78 3/4 in.

Richter’s 1987 Abstraktes Bild (649-2) sold for $27.6 million at Sotheby’s Hong Kong sale on October 6, 2020, making it the most expensive Western painting to sell at an Asian auction. The painting is representative of Richter’s textured, abstract style that’s finished by dragging a squeegee across the canvas.

Richter, whose prices have grown at an annual rate of 16.6 percent since 2000, according to Art Market Research, is unlikely to see a decline in the demand for his work before the end of his life. His website, gerhard-richter.com, gives meticulous information about his art, his prices, and his legacy.  

Thiebaud, who will turn 101 in November, is not likely to see his popularity decline in his lifetime. This may have more to do with quality than commerce. According to Alex Rotter, Chairman of Post-War and Contemporary Art at Christie’s, Thiebaud is among the most loved and revered artists of the 20th century. His paintings, Ross has said, “instill delight into anyone who stands before them.”

About the Author

Rina Rich Langer

Rina Rich Langer is a writer and adjunct professor of writing at New York University. She has written about the arts for various publications including Gannett and The New York Times. She is also a published poet and Brown graduate.

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