A 1969 triptych by the Anglo-Irish artist Francis Bacon sold for US$142.4m on Tuesday, November 1, 2013. This sale, at Christie’s in New York, broke the previous auction record, the US$120m paid last year for Edvard Munch’s The Scream, leaving in the dust previous record purchases of Jeff Koons’ Ballon Dog(orange) for US$58.4m, Andy Warhol’s Coca-Cola for US$57.28m, Mark Rothko’s (No,11) Untitled for US$46.08m, Jackson Pollock’s Number 16 for US$32.64m, Willem De Kooning’s Untitled VII for US$32.1m and Roy Lichtenstein’s Seductive Girl for US$31.52m.
Purchased by a New York art dealer William Acquavella for an “unidentified foreign customer” thought to be the Russian billionaire Dmitry Yevgenyevich Rybolovlev. Bidding for Lot 8A – Three Studies of Lucian Freud – began at US$80m, and had seven prospective collectors vying for a sale before offers reached US$100m, leading to a chorus of oohs and aahs from the gathered audience. Three disappointed bidders, including Acquavella’s rival art dealer Larry Gagosian, according to The Financial Times made a big drama out of hurriedly exiting the room.
The auctioneers hammer came down at US$127m for the paintings, with the bidder’s premium, 12 percent on works over US$1m, made for an aggregate price of US$142.4m. The triptych, never before been offered at auction, depicts Lucian Freud, Bacon’s friend, gay lover and sometimes deeply bitter rival, sitting uncomfortably in a wooden chair. The focus of job lot of sale that fetched a collective US$691.5m, it shows that, in spite of worldwide inflation, that there is a booming global auction market for art. Auction records were set for ten artists, with American painter Jeff Koons now the most expensive living artist after his Balloon Dog (Orange) sold to a telephone collector, thought to be Russian oil oligarch Roman Abramovich for US$58.4m. Meanwhile, among the deceased, works by Willem de Kooning, Donald Judd and Christopher Wool all overtook previous records. Out off the 69 works listed for sale, just six failed to sell.
Christie’s is a private London-based auctioneer owned by the Paris real estate magnate François-Henri Pinault, who was heard to be complaining out loud after a dismal start to the autumn bidding season last week, according to The New York Times. There was much gossip in the trendy art-dealing crowd concerning 25 percent of the gathered lots valued at an initial US$144.2. Twelve out of the 46 artworks on offer went unsold and what did fly was regarded by critics as underpriced, including two well regarded pieces, Le peintre et son modèle dans un paysage by Pablon Picasso, and Monsieur Baranowski by Amadeo Modigliani. Both were expected to receive bids over US$25m, but neither did. Yet, 24 hours later, Christie’s long time nemesis, Sotheby’s, sold 92% of its listings to the ka-ching tune of US$290.2m.
As with so many artists, during his complex, crazy lifetime, Francis Bacon was equally reviled and acclaimed. Britain’s famed ‘Iron Lady,’ Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, despised both Bacon’s work and his lifestyle, calling him, “That man who paints those dreadful pictures!” in an interview with The New York Times. The subject of two Tate gallery retrospectives and a sensational show in 1971 at Paris’ Grand Palais, Bacon is now hotter than ever. Since his death, his reputation and market value has steadily grown.