‘Invisible’ portrait of Francis Bacon fetches $52.8 million at auction

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Written by Leah Dolan, CNN

This item has been updated with the final sale price and other details after the auction closed.

A rare portrait of famed painter Francis Bacon was sold at Sotheby’s London on Wednesday for £43.4 million ($52.8 million), the first time the artwork has been auctioned in its nearly six-decade history.

‘Study for Portrait of Lucian Freud’, painted in 1964, was intended to be the centerpiece of a large triptych – a multi-part artistic format favored by Bacon – but Bacon soon decided that his creations should instead be viewed as one-offs.

The intimate paintings capture British artist Lucien Freud, who was once a friend of Bacon and later, in the mid-1980s, an enemy. The three works of art were exhibited together in Stockholm and Hamburg shortly after their completion in 1965. One side wall now belongs to a museum in Jerusalem, the other is in a private collection.

“Study for the Portrait of Lucian Freud” on display ahead of Wednesday’s auction. Recognition: Courtesy of Sotheby’s

Experts initially predicted the painting would fetch as much as £35 million ($42 million) at the center, although it topped estimates on Wednesday to become the most valuable one-piece painting of Bacon ever sold at auction was said Sotheby’s.

Before the auction, the “study for the portrait of Lucian Freud” had been hidden from the public in a private art collection for 40 years, according to Sotheby’s, which exhibited the painting in London last weekend.

The turbulent and well-documented relationship between Bacon and Freud adds another layer of complexity and value to the portrait. The couple met in 1944 and are said to have been inseparable until the 1980s, when professional rivalry overwhelmed them. Several tape recordings from this period shared with the British newspaper The Observer in 2018revealed that Bacon openly ridiculed Freud’s abilities.

By 1982 Freud and Bacon – two pillars of British contemporary art – no longer spoke to each other. Bacon’s delicate Study for Portrait of Lucian Freud, painted decades before their argument, has become all the more melancholy since it has become a symbol of lost friendship.

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According to Bella Freud, fashion designer and Lucien Freud’s daughter, the ailing friendship cast a long shadow.

“Francis was clearly someone he adored and admired. And there weren’t many people that my dad talked about that way,” she said in a press release ahead of the auction. “The things he repeated about him were absolutely stunning, utterly disarming and breathtakingly wonderful and stunned by their brilliance. I can imagine he must have missed that when he stopped being nice to him.”

Bacon is known to be a hit at art auctions, and his work often exceeds pre-sale estimates. In 2020, his 1981 play entitled “Triptych Inspired by the Oresteia of Aeschylus” sold for $84 million, beating the original estimate of $60-$80 million.

Almost 10 years ago, in 2013, another triptych by Lucien Freud from 1969 sold for $142 million in just six minutes, becoming the most expensive work of art ever sold at auction. Leonardo da Vinci’s “Salvator Mundi” now bears that title after the controversial painting grossed a staggering $450 million in 2017.

Update: A previous version of this article stated that Bacon’s “Study for Portrait of Lucian Freud” was part of a triptych. The story has been updated to reflect that the painting was only intended to be part of a triptych for a short time. Within a year of completing the three works, the artist changed his mind and numbered each painting as a unique piece.

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