LONDON—When the National Portrait Gallery’s major show of Lucian Freud’s work opens next month (Feb. 9–May 27), it will include the fleshy life-size portrait—Benefits Supervisor Sleeping, 1995—that Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich paid a record $33.6 million for at Christie’s in 2008 (ANL, 5/27/08). The sale made Freud the most expensive living artist in the world.
Freud’s colored chalk drawing Beach Scene with a Boat, an early work from 1945, was sold as part of the Evill/Frost collection (ANL, 7/12/11) last June, a month before the artist’s death, for £2.6 million ($4.3 million). This was not only a record for a work on paper by Freud, but among the highest prices ever paid for a drawing by a living artist, and nearing the levels paid for iconic artists like Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse or Egon Schiele.
The activity is all the more remarkable, considering that Freud virtually gave up drawing in the 1950s to build his reputation as an oil painter.
As an adjunct to the National Portrait Gallery’s exhibition, with its emphasis on the post-1950s oil paintings, there will be an exhibition entirely devoted to Freud’s drawings at the Blain/Southern gallery on Dering Street. Here, more than 100 drawings curated by Freud’s biographer, William Feaver, will show the full range of his activity, from sketch-book doodles to fully worked color drawings dating from the 1930s through the 1960s when he flirted briefly with watercolor washes, to the 1980s when he was concentrating mostly on etching as a form of drawing.
The show was arranged with Freud’s dealer Acquavella Galleries, New York, and will subsequently be shown there (April 30-June 9). The works in the show that have recently been on the market will give an idea of current values. From the Evill/Frost sale comes Boy on a Sofa, 1944, which sold for £1.5 million ($2.4 million). Two other early works from Kay Saatchi’s collection that were sold last summer are included—Dead Bird, which was bought by Acquavella for £481,250 ($784,220), and Sleeping Cat, sold to master drawings dealer Stephen Ongpin for £193,250 ($315,000). It is a measure of the change in the Freud drawings market that when this drawing was offered at auction in 1997, with a £15,000 estimate, it was unsold.
However, after high prices at auction, it often happens that lesser work by an artist, in spite of its historical interest, tends to be overvalued. Four slight Freud drawings from the 1940s were offered by Christie’s in November, but the £25,000/60,000 estimates were considered too inflated and they were unsold.
Market observers will be watching closely as Sotheby’s and Christie’s offer Freud drawings in their contemporary art sales next month. Christie’s has a previously unrecorded Irish landscape from 1948 (estimate: £200,000/300,000), while Sotheby’s has five works from a single collection, thought to be that of Freud’s former dealer, James Kirkman.
These drawings span Freud’s evolution as a draughtsman: from two nature drawings from the early 1940s—Cacti and Stuffed Bird (estimate: £400,000/500,000) and the colored Gorse Sprig (estimate: £300,000/400,000)—to his evocative, 1985 charcoal portrait of Lord Goodman (estimate: £400,000/600,000).
In a further sale, Lord Goodman may also be the star when 45 Freud etchings from the collection of his printer Marc Balakjian are offered by Christie’s. Showing the eminent lawyer and former chairman of the Arts Council in his yellow pajamas, the 1987 print, like the drawing, was taken from sittings while Lord Goodman took his breakfast in bed —that being the only free time in the day he had to be an artist’s model. Estimated at £50,000/70,000, some dealers believe it could make a record £100,000 for a Freud print.
However, dealer Pilar Ordovas, former head of Christie’s contemporary art in London, notes: “I don’t think the exhibitions will change the market. It had already changed before he died.”