Francis Bacon claims his place at the top of the market

As Tate Britain opens a major travelling retrospective, we examine the factors underpinning the meteoric rise in prices for the artist’s work and reveal the identity of his biggest collectors

In London last July, Study for Head of George Dyer, 1967, by Francis Bacon was the highlight of Sotheby’s Contemporary Art Evening Sale. The sensuous portrait of the artist’s most significant muse was painted four years before Dyer killed himself in an alcohol-driven drugs overdose in a Parisian hotel. Depictions of Dyer tend to sell well. The auctioneer opened the bidding at £7m. In the third row, Pierre Chen, a dapper businessman from Taipei with a stellar collection of British art, batted the quarter-million pound increments back to a trio of collectors on telephones with Sotheby’s reps. When the bidding got sticky at £12m, Chen pulled out and the poignant profile went to a phone bidder who, some affirm, was an established American collector and others are certain was Russian tycoon Roman Abramovich. Either way, the work sold for a cool £13.8m with buyer’s premium.

After years of being perceived as a bloody good British painter, Bacon has become the most sought-after international artist of the post-war period. Andy Warhol may account for more volume, but it is a monumental Bacon triptych that now holds the record for the highest price ever paid for a post-war work of art at auction. Triptych 1976, a fabulously gruesome picture whose central panel depicts a black bird of prey devouring the innards of a headless human, sold in May for a staggering $86m.

The 1976 triptych definitely went to Abramovich. For some, buying works is so much easier than borrowing; it appears that a major Bacon exhibition is in the making. Entitled “Death Shadowing Life: Francis Bacon: The Late Paintings, 1971-1992” and curated by Martin Harrison, the author of the forthcoming Bacon catalogue raisonné, it will open in 2010 in the new CCC gallery in Moscow set up by Abramovich’s girlfriend Daria Zhukova. The show will also travel to the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg.

So the Bacon boom is not just about a billionaire with a girlfriend who has intelligent taste. The buyers are incredibly diverse. Last year, Sheikha Al Mayassa, daughter of the Emir of Qatar, threw down $53m on Study From Innocent X, a Pope with a red background from 1962. Then in February, the British currency trader and principal owner of Tottenham Hotspur, Joseph C. Lewis, acquired Triptych 1974, an exquisitely composed work featuring male nudes and black umbrellas on a purgatorial beach, for what now looks like the bargain price of £26m. Most recently, word has it that an Irish billionaire was the winner of the 1975 triptych Self-Portrait with Parisian provenance which sold at Christie’s for £17m in June.

Gerard Faggionato, who represents the Bacon estate in Europe and whose exhibition “Francis Bacon’s Women” opens on 8 September, explains, “The Bacon market is not one that has players in the same way as Warhol for the simple reason that there isn’t enough material. If someone owns four Bacon paintings, they are considered a major collector.” Indeed, Bacon was a ruthless editor of his own work. He destroyed paintings throughout his life and, after his death, excavators discovered 98 slashed canvases in his studio. His entire oeuvre consists of only 600 or so paintings.

While the market for post-war art may be soaring, prices for Bacon are skyrocketing. Last year, the artist came in third place behind Warhol and Picasso in ArtPrice’s auction turnover rankings whereas, in 2003, he languished in 77th place. Even if more Bacon paintings are now being traded publicly rather than privately, there are clearly stronger forces at work here.

Changing tastes

With the Bacon market, we are witnessing a genuine shift in cultural sensibility. What used to be perceived as “difficult” now feels “real” and where Bacon paintings used to be viewed as morbid and distressing, they are now seen as exhilaratingly raw. This shift relates to two other cultural trends: a swing in the epicentre of the art market from New York to London and the long, slow return of figurative painters to the canon of the avant-garde. As Ivor Braka, a dealer who has bought and sold over 40 Bacons since the 1980s, explains, “For decades, there was a lot of resistance to buying Bacon at the prices of his American peers. Bacon is laden with content, whereas American buyers were brought up on a Greenbergian diet of abstraction or the cool commercialism of Pop rather than the more emotionally disturbing art of Europe.”

Bacon’s work is both hugely influential and superbly inimitable. “Bacon is the grandfather of the YBAs,” explains Matthew Gale, co-curator of Tate Britain’s Bacon retrospective, which opens on 11 September. “His unflinching awareness of transience, his stance of being outside the mainstream, but maintaining a career—his attitudes have influenced other artists.”

Although painters like George Condo, Marlene Dumas and Cecily Brown would seem to be diehard Bacon fans, no artist has directed attention toward the new old master more than Damien Hirst. Hirst’s romantic meditations on mortality, his creative use of slaughtered livestock (in Bacon-like space frames) in early sculptures such as A Thousand Years, 1990, and his excruciatingly literal homages (e.g. The Tranquility of Solitude (For George Dyer), a trio of formaldehyde sculptures featuring dead sheep sitting on toilets) are bloodstained with Bacon’s influence. Hirst owns five Bacon works, including A Study for a Figure at the Base of the Crucifixion, 1943-44 (exhibited at the Serpentine gallery as part of his murderme collection), a rare work from the 1930s entitled Crucifixion (which will be in the Tate show’s crucifixion room), and a self-portrait he bought at auction for $33m in November 2007. “Francis Bacon is the best,” Hirst told The Art Newspaper. “He has the guts to fuck in hell. He’s the last bastion of painting. When I was growing up, all I wanted to do was paint like Bacon. Before Bacon, painting seems dead… totally dead.”

Glowing assessments by artists aside, a rising market requires that a succession of major works go on the block. “You need a stream of quality appearing to market,” explains Pilar Ordovas, Head of Post-War & Contemporary Art at Christie’s London. “The $33m sale price of the Self-portrait [that Damien Hirst bought last year] could not have happened without the $9m sale of the Self-portrait from the Valerie Beston estate in 2006 which, in turn, was dependent on the solid price commanded by the 1973 Self-portrait sold in 2004”. Until recently, it has been extremely difficult to persuade collectors to part with the work. “Bacon has never been a fad or fashion,” adds Ordovas. ‘Collectors bought because they really loved the work and, even after some 30 years, they don’t feel that they’ve outgrown it. Even now when a Bacon painting can represent more than the value of their home, it is still a difficult decision.”

Museum blockbusters and intellectual reappraisals are also integral to escalating values. The Tate has been a loyal supporter of Bacon, having given him two retrospectives during his lifetime (in 1962 and 1985) and having acquired 14 paintings and 36 sketches over the years. Why the museum turned down the estate’s offer of Bacon’s studio contents is anyone’s guess. Word has it that it was a “ghastly misunderstanding” in the furious run up to the opening of Tate Modern. As a result, the Hugh Lane Dublin City Gallery became the proud host of the most meticulous re-construction of an artist’s studio ever undertaken. “If Bacon woke up from the dead, he could go straight back to work in the room,” says Hugh Lane curator Patrick Casey.

Needless to say, Tate Britain’s upcoming retrospective, which contains 70 paintings and is accompanied by a catalogue that is both illustrated and scholarly, will likely strengthen collector demand for the work, particularly as it travels to the Prado in Madrid, then the Metropolitan Museum in New York in 2009.

An artist-run estate

Another set of factors crucial to the market of any dead artist relate to the strategic decisions of the estate. Bacon died in Madrid in April 1992 at the age of 82. He left everything, including his studio and some 17 or so paintings, to his good friend and artistic subject, John Edwards, who in turn appointed artist Brian Clarke as executor.

In 1998, the estate moved its business from the Marlborough Gallery, Bacon’s dealer since 1958, to the younger Faggionato Fine Arts in Europe and Tony Shafrazi Gallery in New York. Whilst Marlborough was no doubt the best gallery to have in the 1960s and 1970s, by the late 1990s it had become more establishment and was unlikely to bring new dynamism to Bacon’s market. A few years later, the estate sued Marlborough but eventually abandoned court proceedings and all its claims made against the gallery were dismissed. Suffice it to say that both sides paid their own legal costs and neither likes to discuss it.

In addition to the standard practice of supporting retrospective exhibitions and the inspired archaeological analysis and rebuilding of the studio, the estate has sponsored a broad range of projects, including a BBC Arena 90-minute programme on Bacon and several PhDs. In 2006, it appointed Harrison to write a new three-volume, full-colour catalogue raisonné for prospective publication in 2011. (The existing catalogue raisonné by Ronald Alley was published in 1964 and excludes the bulk of Bacon’s work.) The estate has also supported Harrison’s “Incunabula”, a visual account of the most compelling source materials among the 7,500 items recovered from Bacon’s studio published this month by Thames & Hudson.

In a particularly innovative move, the estate has also commissioned Pulitzer Prize winning authors Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan to write a new Bacon biography. It is not an official biography, but one in which the authors retain full editorial control. Brian Clarke loved their “De Kooning: an American Master” so much that he read it three times. He was keen for “non-English, non-gay authors to bring objective deliberation and subjective insight to Bacon’s work.” Swan and Stevens began their research on Bacon a year ago and expect to finish in five to six years. A best-selling book with a readership outside the confines of the art world is a smart move that may affect future demand for Bacon.

The ultimate trophy

So which parts of the Bacon oeuvre are most coveted today? During his lifetime, his Van Gogh paintings—a small series from the late 50s—were most highly prized, but today they look rather tame and less quintessentially Bacon than other series. At auction, the Pope paintings and large triptychs tend to command the highest prices, but demand is also strong for the portraits whose tender specificities bear witness to Bacon’s notion that “very great artists were not trying to express themselves. They were trying to trap the fact.”

For a captain of industry, it would seem that there is no more fitting trophy than a screaming Pope. Connecticut-based hedge-fund billionaire Steve Cohen owns one of the best, a large seminal canvas from 1950 in which the seated pontiff looks like he’s in eternal free-fall. The painting was thought destroyed; it had been rolled and stowed and only resurfaced after the artist’s death. In 2004, Cohen presciently bought the work off the estate for an undisclosed sum—no doubt well below, and probably for less than a quarter, of its current $80m valuation.

The Popes vary hugely in quality. Between 1946 and 1971, Bacon, a zealous atheist, made some 30 to 40 paintings loosely based on Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X. Some morph into businessmen, others might be more accurately called cardinals. Moreover, they are not all screaming. Some seem to be gasping asthmatically. Others have the tight lips of their Baroque ancestor. “I’ve always wanted and never succeeded in painting a smile,” said Bacon once.

The Pope paintings were validated early on in Bacon’s career by being shown in the British Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 1954. Nevertheless, it’s worth wondering why such works are so appealing to billionaire businessmen now. Harrison points to “their Nietzschean fusion of comedy and tragedy,” while Braka suggests that “a man’s earthly power and status doesn’t take away from his private desperation. And his sinfulness is but thinly veiled by the sumptuous purple symbols of high office.” Paradoxically, the Vatican owns the only open-mouthed Pope from the 1961 series. Hung in the Borgia apartments, visitors say that it seems to be laughing at the pious kitsch that surrounds it.

The large triptychs

For an ambitious collector with a lot of wall space, the large triptychs offer the most rewarding interplay of Bacon’s signature ciphers: his dangling bare light bulbs, half-open doors and symbolic keys, arrows and space-frames, supernatural furies, birds of prey, bleeding shadows and black umbrellas (which like a lot of Bacon tropes embody both genders, as when the phallic prong turns into a yawning hole). Bacon always worked on his canvases upright, creating horizontals only by putting three panels together. As a result, his triptychs display his most boldly choreographed compositions. It’s in them that we see how his virtuoso arrangements of positive and negative space are punctuated by finicky underlying detail. Moreover, in the monumental triptychs, one sees the full gamut of Bacon’s self-taught, experimental painting style. He often used an idiosyncratic swirling motion as well as rags, scrub brushes, and handfuls of paint.

“Bacon himself thought that the large triptychs were his best work,” says Faggionato. “The sequence and the scale take you into a parallel universe that a smaller picture couldn’t. They overwhelm you in a good way.” Bacon made one triptych, Three Studies for Figures at the Base of the Crucifixion (a cornerstone of the Tate’s post-war collection) in the 40s and none in the 50s. After moving into a stable studio situation in 1961, and no doubt due to the confidence gained by his impending Tate retrospective in 1962, Bacon returned to the format that year. For Gale, the 60s were a “crucial decade for setting up classic Bacon”, which he describes as “people isolated against open backgrounds, often with domestic detail that doesn’t comfort as much as haunt.” However, it was not until the 70s that Bacon took full command of his large triptychs’ formal complexity and narrative potential. Many see the mournful and heroic “black triptychs” that Bacon painted in the wake of George Dyer’s suicide in 1971 as his greatest achievement.

Intriguingly, one collector owns four triptychs (there are only 30 in existence). Esther Grether, a businesswoman who lives in Basel, Switzerland, and was an early investor in Swatch, has a collection of Bacons that rivals that of any museum. A generous but always anonymous lender, she has loaned Triptych, May-June 1973, to the Tate retrospective. The black and burgundy picture represents Dyer’s final hours and, in the central panel, his shadow takes the shape of a giant bat. Grether bought the masterpiece at auction in 1989 for what was then a record $6.3m. If it, or in fact any one of her other 1970s triptychs, were to come back on the market, they could easily achieve in excess of $100m.

At the moment, the estate is thought to be selling a beautifully post-coital, predominantly orange triptych with a bullfighting theme called Triptych 1987. Word has it that the minimalist picture, whose central panel includes a bleeding breast and right panel depicts a red-eyed fury in a space frame, is on offer for $65m. Although Bacon was to paint two more tripartite panels, this one is arguably his final horny triptych. As Michael Peppiatt (whose revised and updated “Anatomy of an Enigma” is published by Constable this month) says, “It is very difficult to paint love/sex and death. Most artists do one or the other. Bacon did them both.”

In the centre panel of many of Bacon’s monumental triptychs, one finds a coupling –an androgynous mound of mangled figures. “The creative process is a little like the act of making love,” said Bacon. “It can be as violent as fucking, like an orgasm or an ejaculation. The result is often disappointing, but the process is highly exciting.” The joke betrays a fundamental aspect of the way he worked—that it was profoundly interactive rather than onanistic (you can say a lot of things about Bacon’s acerbic wit, but he wasn’t a wanker).

The Buggers

The first Bacon painting to depict a coupling, Two Figures, 1953, has not been seen in public for some 40 years. Usually referred to as “The Buggers,” it was initially considered too “filthy” to exhibit as it depicts Bacon with Peter Lacy, a fighter pilot with whom the artist had an obsessive sexual relationship in the 1950s, in a Muybridge-inspired tangle on a bed. Lucian Freud bought the painting for £100 shortly after it was made. He lent it to the Tate’s 1962 retrospective but has appeared hesitant to lend it ever since.

The fate of the Freud-owned picture provides a clue as to whether the Bacon market can sustain its current highs. With such quality waiting in the wings and super-rich appetites to satisfy, the sky is the limit, particularly when the market is well supported by the high winds of major museum shows. So… Bacon owners should feel free to crack open a magnum of champagne and dive into a mountain of caviar, just as the late great artist would. They might also consider, as Peppiatt does, that “Bacon liked money, but he was above being driven by it. He used to say, ‘Either the National Gallery or the dustbin for my paintings!’” Put another way, in a banal new world of billionaire wealth, the kudos conferred by owning a dark and daring Bacon picture is second only to gifting it.

“Francis Bacon” is at Tate Britain in London from 11 September to 4 January 2009. The exhibition travels to the Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid (3 February-19 April 2009) and the Metropolitan Museum in New York (18 May-16 August 2009).

“Francis Bacon’s Women” is at Faggionato Fine Arts from 8 September to 13 October.

Sarah Thornton’s Seven Days in The Art World is published by Granta in the UK in October and WW Norton in the US in November.

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