Freud portrait by Bacon sells for $142M, smashing record

"Three Studies of Lucien Freud," a 1969 triptych by the Irish-born Bacon, was sold in a Christie's auction Tuesday night in New York.

By MSN Money Partner Nov 13, 2013 4:13PM

Artist Francis Bacon's 'Three Studies of Lucian Freud' at Christie's Auction House in New York on October 31, 2013 (© Shannon Stapleton/Newscom/Reuters)MarketWatchBy Karen Friar

 

Can you put a price on friendship? You can if it's in a painting by Francis Bacon, whose three-part portrait of fellow artist Lucien Freud has set a record for the most expensive artwork ever sold.

 

"Three Studies of Lucien Freud," a 1969 triptych by the Irish-born Bacon, sold for $142.4 million in a Christie's auction Tuesday night in New York. It went after "six minutes of fierce bidding in the room and on the phone," Christie's said, and was bought by dealer Bill Acquavella on behalf of an unnamed client.

 

The bidding started at $80 million — only $5 million below the presale estimate. It then speedily outstripped the $119.9 million price that the previous record holder, Edvard Munch's "The Scream," racked up at a sale in May last year.

 

"I went to $101 million, but it hardly mattered," dealer Larry Gagosian told the New York Times.

 

That wasn't the only record set at the sale. A Jeff Koons sculpture, " Balloon Dog (Orange)," found a phone-in winner at $58.4 million, the highest price for a work by a living artist. Previous top dog was a Gerhard Richter oil painting, sold for $37.1 million.

 

So why the frenzy? Theories are out there, but none gets the general thumbs-up. It could be because the triptych was split up for years after being painted, so it's a chance to nab all three. Or it's the rarity of a full-length portrait of Freud, grandson of the father of psychoanalysis. Or maybe it's because it's a bright yellow.

 

More to the point, it could be a sign of a speculative bubble in the contemporary art world, with artwork being resold for a quick return.

 

"If you look at this month's big contemporary art auctions, you'll see quite a lot of art being flipped," Felix Salmon of Reuters said before the Christie's auction, noting that SAC Capital's Steven Cohen is one of those looking to profit from recent art buys.

 

Salmon says there could be four things going on here: galleries don't really believe in the prices they set; "smart money" is looking to get out; auction houses are sharing the buyer's premium with the seller; and rich buyers, especially those with more money than sense, are outbidding the artworld cognoscenti.

 

"When a bubble becomes speculative, it becomes much more dangerous, and fragile, and short-lived. This bubble is a robust one: it has been going for many years, gathering momentum all the way. Even the financial crisis barely made it stop for a breather," Salmon said, before the Christie's sale.

 

"But if we see another record-breaking season in New York this week, don't take that as a bullish sign. It could just be that we're entering a period of feverish selling."

 

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