Bacon triptych sells for record $142.4 million at auction in New York

NEW YORK Wed Nov 13, 2013 10:14am IST

Artist Francis Bacon's 'Three Studies of Lucian Freud' is seen during a press preview at Christie's Auction House in New York, October 31, 2013. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

Artist Francis Bacon's 'Three Studies of Lucian Freud' is seen during a press preview at Christie's Auction House in New York, October 31, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Shannon Stapleton

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NEW YORK (Reuters) - Francis Bacon's painting "Three Studies of Lucian Freud" became the most expensive work of art ever sold when it fetched $142.4 million in one of the biggest auctions in history at which Christie's sold more than $691 million worth of art.

Bacon's 1969 triptych, never before offered at auction and which carried a pre-sale estimate of about $85 million, easily eclipsed the $119.9 million price of Edvard Munch's "The Scream," achieved in May last year at Sotheby's.

The auction of 69 works of post-war and contemporary art also took in $691,583,000, including commission, far above the estimated $480 million to $670 million, making it the most expensive auction in history and eclipsing Christie's sale of contemporary art in May which totaled $495 million.

The sale set yet another significant record, for a price achieved at auction by any living artist, when Jeff Koons' large sculpture, "Balloon Dog (Orange)," fetched $58.4 million. The price beat the high pre-sale estimate and smashed the old record for a living artist of $37.1 million set by Gerhard Richter's "Domplatz, Mailand (Cathedral Square, Milan)" in May.

Bacon's three-panel work depicts the Dublin-born painter's friend and fellow artist Lucian Freud on a chair, with a view from each side and one face-on. Christie's called it "a true masterpiece that marks Bacon and Freud's relationship" and their "creative and emotional kinship."

"Three Studies of Lucian Freud" is also one of only two existing full-length triptychs of Freud, a grandson of the founder of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud. The three panels were separated for 15 years in the 1970s before being reunited.

The previous record for a Bacon work was $86.3 million.

When the bidding started on Tuesday at $80 million, at least five hands shot up before a protracted bidding war in the packed New York salesroom and via telephone brought the hammer price to $127 million, before commission.

The successful bidder was the Acquavella Gallery, which could have been bidding on behalf of a client.

Christie's officials said the auction, and the jaw-dropping prices many works commanded, were evidence of the art market's strength, especially at its top echelons.

"Our top collectors bid very, very aggressively for the best of the best," said Brett Gorvy, Christie's head of postwar and contemporary art. "I really believe we are beginning something. This is not a bubble."

Jussi Pylkkanen, president and chairman of Christie's Europe who was also the auctioneer, said the sale's success was marked not only by the records, but by "the broad number of clients from all over the world" who participated, including collectors from 42 nations who had registered to bid.

"In the past three to four years, the market for great modern art has become global," he told Reuters. The record sale in May "was a marker for collectors of masterpieces," he said.

Auction officials have been putting forth the notion that new, deep-pocketed collectors from around the globe are driving prices for top-tier works to record levels, and Tuesday's results seemed to bear that out.

Before the sale, Gorvy said collectors from Asia, Russia and the Middle East, flush with cash, were determined to assemble world-class collections featuring trophy works.

"We are at a very very early stage of development for this market," he said afterward. "So many collectors from so many countries are coming into this market."

Among the sale's other highlights, Andy Warhol's "Coca-Cola (3) sold for $57.3 million, Mark Rothko's No. 11 (Untitled) fetched $46.1 million and Willem De Kooning's "Untitled VIII" set an artist's record when it fetched $32.1 million. It was one more than a dozen artist's records that fell.

Only six of the 69 works on offer failed to sell.

The auctions continue on Wednesday with Sotheby's sale of post-war and contemporary art. (Reporting by Chris Michaud; Editing by Ken Wills and Christopher Wilson)

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