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There’s something very curious about the Francis Bacon painting that is slated to go up for auction at Sotheby’s Contemporary Art Evening sale on November 14. First of all, it’s terrible. And yet auctioneers predict that the work, which is currently in the Brooklyn Museum’s collection, will sell for $6–8 million. If you think I’m being harsh, well, it turns out that the artist thought so too.
According to an older version of the museum website, in 1982 the artist wrote the Brooklyn Museum directly about the work, which was donated to the institution in 1981. Today I tried to visit the museum’s library to see if I could see the letter. Sadly, the library didn’t have a copy and the archivist wasn’t in, and I got an email that said requests would be dealt with in 6–8 weeks (yes, they appear to be underfunded, like most archives).
The painting’s info page, no longer listed on the museum website, told a fuller story of this painting. The listing on the Sotheby’s website only hints at Bacon’s distate for the artwork, and the “official” auction house story has been parroted by many in the art trade media (which loves to republish press releases). It suggests this about the painting’s curious origin (emphasis mine):
[I]n 1959, Bacon gifted five of his six Tangier Paintings, completed in this storied period, to his friend Nicolas Brusilowski; Bacon hoped his friend would somehow be able to reuse the canvases. Instead, Brusilowski preserved the paintings, which later found their way to private collections around the world. The present Pope was sold to Swiss dealer Jan Krugier; and in 1967, American collector Olga H. Knoepke subsequently acquired the work from Krugier’s gallery. A renowned businesswoman, Knoepke amassed a significant collection of contemporary and American art in her lifetime, which she gifted to the Brooklyn Museum in 1981. Now, for the first time in over fifty years, Pope will once again change hands; all proceeds from the sale will be used to support the museum’s collection.
But that’s not the whole story. In 1982, the museum received a letter from the artist himself, which is listed on an older version of the museum website and featured at the top of this article (thanks, Wayback Machine!). But the contents of the letter aren’t fully clear, and it seems curious that the museum doesn’t have it easily accessible considering the high profile sale. Then again, we can probably agree that the auction house probably sees no benefit in revealing this, since the type of capitalism Sotheby’s and other blue-chip auction houses play is a form of smoke and mirrors (just think about the ‘Salvator Mundi’ that is reputedly by Leonardo da Vinci … yeah, sure). After a quick search in the museum’s Francis Bacon folder, which contains the relevant catalogue raisonné entry, it appears the work was catalogued with the title “Pope” even though the museum had it listed as “Personnage” on their website. But it also has a revealing quote from this infamous 1981 letter:
It was a throw-out and it depresses me [Nicholas Brusilowksi] did not destroy the image […] and that it has years later found its way onto the art market and I would prefer if it were not exhibited.
While the museum has exhibited the painting at various times since they received that letter, it was never extensively shown. Most people I’ve asked, even regular Brooklyn Museum-goers, had no idea a Bacon existed in the collection.
So, the art market is trying to gin up a bad painting (which looks terrible, admit it) and find someone to fork over millions for something the artist didn’t want in circulation. Respecting an artists wishes seems like it should be central to exhibiting this type of work.
I asked the museum if they had any comment on the situation, particularly the artist’s intention, and they provided the following response:
While the work is exceptional, post-war European art is not a focus of our collection. As part of ongoing collection review, we’ve chosen to sell this particular work and use the proceeds to more sharply focus on institutional collection priorities.
It doesn’t seem like they want us to know the whole story. Also, I find it strange that an encyclopedic museum like the Brooklyn Museum doesn’t think post-war European art is a focus of their collection, considering so much contemporary art references it, but that’s their call. Let’s see if they find a
chump collector to buy this terrible painting.