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Bacon’s Rescued ‘Rubbish’ Brings In a $2.2M Surprise

On April 24, a collection of letters, diaries, photographs and paintings that had been rescued from a builder’s skip, or Dumpster, outside the studio of artist Francis Bacon (1909-92), was sold by Ewbank auctioneers in Surrey, England. The entire auction of what was viewed as archival material, was estimated to fetch between £35,000/50,000; instead the

LONDON—On April 24, a collection of letters, diaries, photographs and paintings that had been rescued from a builder’s skip, or Dumpster, outside the studio of artist Francis Bacon (1909-92), was sold by Ewbank auctioneers in Surrey, England. The entire auction of what was viewed as archival material, was estimated to fetch between £35,000/50,000; instead the sale total soared to £1.1 million ($2.2 million).

The sale’s backstory began in 1978 when Bacon, then 69, called in Mac Robertson, an electrical contractor, to install a heating system in his famously chaotic London studio. A month later, Robertson arrived to find Bacon fretting because workmen had been standing on a heap of his rubbish. In a fit of petulance he had told them to discard the rubbish, but Robertson persuaded Bacon to give it all to him.

Some Pricey Throwaways

There was nothing Bacon considered important: old pocket book diaries; unused checks and check stubs revealing where he liked to spend his money; his photographs of his ex-lover Peter Lacey and of Lucian Freud; photos of African tribesmen by Peter Beard; and contact sheets of male wrestlers, similar to images by Eadward Muybridge, which may have all borne some relationship to Bacon’s own paintings. Some photographs of his works were marked with improvements he planned to make.

Among the letters was a handwritten copy of a note to the Pace Gallery, New York, expressing Bacon’s desire to stay with the Marlborough Gallery. The original was later used successfully by Marlborough as evidence in a 1999 court case, filed by the Francis Bacon estate, to show the artist had been happy with the gallery, which had been accused of defrauding him. There also were small paintings: four portraits by Bacon with the heads cut out; and three of his oil sketches of dogs.

Bacon’s estate, which had donated the contents of the artist’s studio to the Hugh Lane gallery, Dublin, bought some of the letters and photographs; and London-based photography dealer Michael Hoppen purchased a series of contact sheets. Estimated to bring about £2,600, they fetched £23,400 ($47,000).

But the most expensive items were bought by private collectors. One, identified by trade sources as jeweler Laurence Graff, spent £127,000 ($254,000) on three small portraits from which the faces had been cut out, and will display them as a triptych. The paintings were estimated to make no more than £7,500 ($15,000) in all. Graff also is believed to have bought the top lot, an unfinished small study for a portrait, for £470,000 or $941,300 (estimate: £12,000/18,000).

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