A Francis Bacon painting featuring the painter’s signature pope figure could fetch more than $40 million at Phillips next month. Pope with Owls (ca. 1958) will make its auction debut after 35 years in the same collection.
The painting features a seated smiling pope with his hands extended in the air flanked by two identical owls perched on the figure’s throne. It will hit the auction block with a guarantee during Phillips 20th-century and contemporary art evening sale on November 17. Pope with Owls is expected to fetch a price between $35 million and $45 million.
Bacon produced the work in the late 1950s during a 14-month stay in Morocco. The painting alludes to a portrait of Pope Innocent X by Diego Velázquez, an image which Bacon repeatedly referenced in his work between 1949 and 1971. The current seller, a private American collector, purchased the work nearly four decades ago from Swiss dealer Thomas Amman. The work was last exhibited in 2006 in a Bacon show at Gagosian gallery in New York.
Throughout the 1950s, Bacon’s renderings started to rely on an increasingly vivid color palette, with scarlet sometimes used prominently in the paintings’ backgrounds. Bacon also began adding to this mysterious figure animals such as owls. The artist’s biographer, Martin Harrison, has described these birds as ominous emblems.
Two other known versions of Bacon’s Pope with Owls reside in museum collections, one at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the other at Brussels’s Royal Museums of Fine Arts.
If the painting reaches its high estimate, Pope with Owls will become one of the most expensive works ever sold at Phillips, a house that has largely sold works for lower sums than its competitors Christie’s and Sotheby’s. Andy Warhol’s Men in Her Life (1962), which sold for $63.3 million in New York in 2010, currently holds the record for the most expensive work auctioned by Phillips.
Other works by Bacon have fetched high prices at auction recently. In June 2020, just after lockdown lifted in some parts of the world, a Bacon triptych from the collection of late Norwegian collector Hans Rasmus Astrup sold at Sotheby’s for $84.6 million.
The present lot will go on view in Hong Kong at the end of October before returning to New York at Phillips, where it will go on display to the public ahead of its auction.