Tonight, Francis Bacon’s “Three Studies of Lucian Freud” (1969) broke the world auction record and realized $142,405,000 (incl. the buyer’s premium) at Christie’s evening Post-War and Contemporary auction in Manhattan’s Rockefeller Center. The triptych, which was estimated at $85 million, is one of 28 known large triptychs created by the British artist from 1944–1991 and the second of three known triptychs by Bacon of Freud, and only one of two Freud triptychs that remain together. The six-foot high painting garnered the highest price paid at auction for a work of art, though Vincent Van Gogh’s “Portrait of Dr. Gachet” (1890), which sold at Christie’s in 1990 for $82.5M might qualify as the highest if adjusted for inflation (~$149.5M in 2013 dollars).
The Bacon’s hammer price is still dwarfed by the reputed $259M paid by Qatari royals for Paul Cézanne’s “The Card Players” (1892–93), which was sold privately.
Bacon was introduced to Freud by Graham Sutherland in early 1945, and the two painters painted works of one another. The three panels of “Three Studies of Lucian Freud” were not always together, as Christie’s explained in their auction announcement before the sale:
Remarkably, the three panels of the work were separated for around fifteen years of their history. The complete work was exhibited first in 1970 at Galleria Galatea and later in the now renowned retrospective at the Grand Palais and Kunsthalle Düsseldorf in 1971–1972. The three panels were shown together at the Bacon retrospective at The Yale Center for British Art, New Haven in 1999. This work has hung as a gilded triptych, as Bacon intended, ever since.
Regarding his triptychs, Bacon is quoted in David Sylvester’s 2000 book Looking Back at Francis Bacon as explaining:
“Triptychs are the things I like doing most, and I think this may be related to the thought I’ve sometimes had of making a film. I like the juxtaposition of the images separated on three different canvases. So far as my work has any quality, I often feel perhaps it is the triptychs that have the best quality”
The following video about the Bacon work was released by Christie’s to promote the auction: