Editor’s Note: This article was updated with the final sale price and other details following the auction’s conclusion.
A rare portrait by celebrated painter Francis Bacon sold for £43.4 million ($52.8 million) at Sotheby’s London on Wednesday, the first time the artwork has been auctioned in its almost six-decade history.
“Study for Portrait of Lucian Freud,” painted in 1964, was intended to be the centerpiece of a large triptych – a multi-part artistic format favored by Bacon – but Bacon soon decided his creations should be seen as individual pieces instead.
The intimate paintings capture British artist Lucien Freud, who was at one time a friend of Bacon’s and later, by the mid-1980s, a foe. The three artworks were exhibited together in Stockholm and Hamburg in 1965, shortly after their completion. One side panel now belongs to a museum in Jerusalem and the other is in a private collection.
Experts initially predicted that the center painting would fetch up to £35 million ($42 million), though it smashed estimates on Wednesday to become the most valuable single-panel painting by Bacon ever to sell at auction, Sotheby’s said.
Prior to the auction, “Study for Portrait of Lucian Freud” had been hidden from public view in a private art collection for 40 years, according to Sotheby’s, which exhibited the painting in London last weekend.
Bacon and Freud’s tumultuous and well-documented relationship imbues the portrait with another layer of complexity and value. The pair met in 1944 and were said to have been inseparable until the 1980s, when professional rivalry got the better of them. Several tape recordings from that time, shared with British newspaper The Observer in 2018, revealed Bacon openly ridiculing Freud’s skill.
By 1982, Freud and Bacon – two pillars of British contemporary art – were not on speaking terms. Bacon’s tender “Study for Portrait of Lucian Freud,” painted decades before their falling out, is all the more melancholic since becoming a symbol of friendship lost.
According to Bella Freud, fashion designer and daughter of Lucien Freud, the soured friendship cast a long shadow.
“Francis was clearly somebody who he adored and admired. And there weren’t many people my father talked about in that way,” she said in a news release ahead of the auction. “The things he repeated about him were just dazzling, utterly disarming and breathtakingly wonderful, and silencing because of their brilliance. I imagine he must have missed that when he stopped being friendly with him.”
Bacon is known as a big hitter at art auctions, and his work often smashes pre-sale estimates. In 2020, his 1981 piece titled “Triptych Inspired by the Oresteia of Aeschylus” sold for $84 million, surpassing the original estimate of between $60 and $80 million.
Almost 10 years ago in 2013, another triptych of Lucien Freud from 1969 sold for $142 million in just six minutes to become, at the time, the most expensive artwork ever sold at auction. That title is now held by Leonardo da Vinci’s “Salvator Mundi” after the controversial painting fetched an eye-watering $450 million in 2017.
Update: A previous version of this article stated that Bacon’s “Study for Portrait of Lucian Freud” was part of a triptych. The story has been updated to reflect the painting was only briefly intended to become part of a triptych. Within a year of finishing the three works the artist changed his mind and numbered each painting as individual pieces.