LONDON—The 1956 painting Study for Portrait II by Francis Bacon (1909-92), from his “Pope” series of pictures influenced by a portrait from Diego Velázquez (1599-1660), Pope Innocent X, is expected to be a highlight of Christie’s London sale of postwar and contemporary art on Feb. 8.
The seller of the portrait, ARTnewsletter has learned, is Italian actress Sophia Loren. Her ownership is inextricably tied up with the fascinating but little-known collection of her late husband, Carlo Ponti, the producer of Doctor Zhivago and Blow Up, among other movies, who died just days after Christie’s announced the sale last month.
The portrait is one of several hundred lots of Impressionist, modern and contemporary art, estimated at a total of £400 million ($785 million), which will be offered next week at London auctions. Christie’s has described it as “the most important work from Bacon’s ‘Pope’ series to appear on the market.”
The Christie’s catalogue states that the painting was last shown in public in 1963 and last sold in the mid-1960s by Marlborough Fine Art, London (the gallery would not reveal the buyer’s identity). However, it actually was exhibited in 1983 at the Brera Art Gallery, Milan, in a display of works by Bacon and the German artist George Grosz.
The show was not publicized as works from Ponti’s collection, but each catalogue entry contained a provenance note citing the “Ponti-Loren Collection.”
Moreover, it is a matter of record that during the 1980s, the Brera Art Gallery housed works from Ponti’s art collection, including ten Bacon paintings, after they had been confiscated by Italian authorities in 1981 following charges against Ponti of tax evasion and currency smuggling.
An Eclectic Trove
Ponti also owned works by Georges Braque, Canaletto, Giorgio de Chirico, Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore and Pablo Picasso, but it was the Bacons for which his collection was renowned, mainly because he had so many.
They included examples from the artist’s early “[Vincent]van Gogh” series, triptychs, self-portraits and Pope paintings, which were rarely publicized or loaned for public exhibitions.
In 1990 Ponti reached a deal with the Italian government; he was cleared of the charges brought against him and regained possession of his art. At some point, say informed sources, the collection was then split between Ponti and Loren.
Over the years, several of the works have been sold privately. Last summer two paintings that previously had been in the Ponti collection were shown in a Bacon exhibition at the Gagosian Gallery, London. One, a vertical composition of four self-portraits, had already been sold to collector Steven Cohen, the U.S. hedge-fund manager who is on the ARTnews list of the world’s top ten art collectors.