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Bacon Prices Soar as Collectors Catch Up to Critics

Even amid the substantial growth of the contemporary-art market in recent years, skyrocketing prices for the work of Francis Bacon stand out as some of the ¬highest-recorded and fastest-rising at auctions.

NEW YORK—Even amid the substantial growth of the contemporary-art market in recent years, skyrocketing prices for the work of Francis Bacon stand out as some of the ¬highest-recorded and fastest-rising at auctions.

Less than three years ago, the top price for a Bacon painting was the $10.1 million paid at Christie’s in November 2005 for Study For Pope I, 1961, against an estimate of $7 million/9 million. By the following November, the record for Bacon had jumped by 50 percent, when Version No. 2 of Lying Figure with Hypodermic Syringe, 1968, brought $15 million at Sotheby’s New York. Another year later, another 50 percent leap at the top—for Seated Woman (Portrait of Muriel Belcher), 1961, which took E13.7 million ($20 million), at Sotheby’s Paris in December 2007. More than 11 Bacon works have sold above the $20 million mark, including the top auction price to date—$86.3 million at Sotheby’s New York in May for Triptych (in three parts), 1976.

“Sometimes it takes one price for people to start looking at an artist more closely,” says Alex Rotter, head of Sotheby’s contemporary art department, New York. Although Bacon is “a great master of the 20th century, he was always hard to sell because the imagery was tough.” However, says Rotter, “the market came to the same conclusion that art history had a while ago. It just happened that some of the best work came on the market at the right moment.”

Hedge fund manager Steven Cohen, who is in the top ten on the ARTnews list of the top 200 collectors in the world, was among the first to jump-start the Bacon market when he acquired an early painting from the artist’s estate for $15 million four years ago. Damien Hirst has also been buying Bacon works on the private market.

Dominique Lévy, partner at L&M Arts, New York, told ARTnewsletter, “First and foremost, the American market started to look at his work. Interest had been mainly European—Swiss, German, even Italian.” Museums and critics had always paid attention, says Levy, but “collectors started to look more closely and came to the realization that he is the only Postwar artist to reinvent a completely unique and new figurative language. No other artist has been able to be so unique, and he was not part of any movement. [Bacon was] able to retain figuration and reinvent it with all the existential loneliness.”

Art adviser Neal Meltzer says demand from new, wealthy collectors around the world plays a large part in the surge in the market. He describes this group of buyers as “Londongrad—it’s a combination of Leningrad and London. When you make a lot of money in Russia and move to London.” Indeed, many of the top Bacon prices are for works that have reportedly gone to collectors in Russia and the Middle East. With demand for trophy artworks at an all-time high and fewer and fewer Impressionist and modern works to be had, superrich collectors are focusing more on contemporary works. Says Meltzer, “Bacon is the new Van Gogh, Rothko is the new Monet, Warhol is the new Picasso.”

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