The Brooklyn Museum’s page on the Francis Bacon painting (screenshot by the author via the Wayback Machine)

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.

The Brooklyn Museum’s Francis Bacon, c.1958, is not exactly his best work, and I should mention the date also differs from the one previously listed on the Brooklyn Museum website. (via Sotheby’s)

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.

The relevant page in the catalogue raisonné. (photo by the author)

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.

(image by Hrag Vartanian/Hyperallergic)

Hrag Vartanian is editor-in-chief and co-founder of Hyperallergic.

9 replies on “Brooklyn Museum Is Trying to Sell a Francis Bacon Painting the Artist Wanted Destroyed”

  1. When Brooklyn sold its Yves Klein five or more years ago, we were told that was a unique, one-off situation. Apparently, instead, a different lesson was learned—easy enough to monetize areas of the collection the current leadership doesn’t care about, artists’ or donors’ wishes be damned.

      1. It’s not like the “unique” Klein is going to vanish from the universe, Hrag. It’s just going off to live with some chump for a decade or so and then it will be back in the museum donation pool.

  2. Of course the art world can find a chump to buy this painting. It sells ooodles of crap to endless chumps every week and this one is a Bacon. Are you new to the art world, Hrag? It’s corrupt and vile and diseased. Has been for decades. You might want to catch up on reality in this flim-flam world.

  3. It seems rather disrespectful to go against the artist’s wishes. Writing to the museum directly, stating that he did not want this painting to be circulated, this situation asks the question, “Does your artists’ interests not matter when it comes to business interests?”. #PAM2019F

  4. Not unprecedented or course – a number of Franz Kline’s phone book pages gifted to Wayne Thiebaud in a similar fashion (explicitly not as completed works) ended up as donations and for sale in various instances. And I’m aware of other high profile artists’ works scrounged by fellow students that held onto them long enough to make a pretty penny. It doesn’t mean they aren’t interesting or worthwhile in their own right, however I think your point is how the work is valued (historically and monetarily) – as a study or a completed artwork – and the complicity between the institution that wants to realize the highest price and the auction out with the same interest in not being truthful about the one and the both. Thanks Wayback Machine!

  5. I don’t think it’s a bad painting, it’s unfinished. With Bacon in particular who worked his paintings intensely with many layers often over the course of years, this painting is fascinating as it a chance to see the skeleton of a Bacon painting, sparse as it is it’s still distinctively Bacon.

    While trying to find the title of an unfinished Tintoretto at the Met which shares much with this Bacon I came across an interesting piece by Roberta Smith “The Fascination of the unfinished ” 192014

    I admire the Bacon for what it is and I think it should be shown to the public rather than being sold. It’s mercenary of the Brooklyn Museum to attempt to quietly sell a rarely shown but valuable painting as the Bacon.

    Many dubious Basquiats in varying states , some fished out of his studio trash can, come to mind.

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