The dark and haunting paintings of Francis Bacon are now in museums around the world, while the works that remain in private collections make headlines when they come up for auction. Here we discuss Bacon’s top works at auction, including the record-breaking triptych of Lucian Freud.
3 Works: Studies Of Lucian Freud, $142,405,000 (£89.4million)
Bacon and Freud met in 1945 and were almost inseparable for nearly three decades. Together they drank, gambled, gossiped and encouraged each other’s arts to greater heights. During their friendship, Bacon made three triptychs of Freud – 3 Works: Studies Of Lucian Freud was the last one he created.
The three paintings were, for a few years, sold to different collectors but eventually were reunited again as a triptych. When the work came up for auction at Christie’s Post-War & Contemporary Evening Sale in New York on 12 November 2013, it was the subject of an intense six-minute bidding battle. At $142.4 million, it remains the most expensive work by Bacon at auction today.
Triptych, 1976, $86,281,000 (£44.4million)
When Triptych, 1976 sold at Sotheby’s Contemporary Art Evening Auction in New York on 14 May 2008, it not only set an auction record for Bacon at the time but became the most expensive work by a contemporary artist sold at auction. Sothebys had estimated the painting around $70 million, according to the New York Times – it achieved over 20% more. Provenance no doubt increased its value: the sellers were the esteemed Moueix family who owned Château Pétrus, one of the world’s most expensive wines, and the painting had previously been shown in Bacon’s major exhibitions at the Tate Gallery in 1985 and the Pompidou Centre, Paris, in 1996. “The world has been waiting for a great triptych, and this is it,” Tobias Meyer, Sotheby’s Head of Contemporary Art, said at the time.
Triptych Inspired By The Oresteia Of Aeschylus, $84,550,000 (£68.7million)
Triptychs were one of Bacon’s favourite painting formats. “So far as my work has any quality, I often feel perhaps it is the triptychs that have the most quality,” he has said. Triptych Inspired By The Oresteia Of Aeschylus references the 5th century B.C. Greek tragedy Oresteia by Aeschylus – a tale of murder, revenge and justice. Aeschylus’s stories had struck a chord with Bacon’s own experiences, the artist has said the Ancient Greek tragedian’s books “open up the valves of sensation for me”.
Sotheby’s estimated the triptych around $60 million but when it was offered in their Contemporary Art Evening Auction in New York on 29 June 2020, it soared to $84.5 million.
Three Studies For A Portrait Of John Edwards, $80,805,000 (£47.9million)
Bacon met East London bartender John Edwards in the early 1970s, when Edwards was 22 years old and the artist was in his sixties. While Bacon’s other friends dismissed Edwards as “a typical East End diamond geezer”, the pair became close companions for 16 years. The artist nicknamed Edwards “Eggs” to his Bacon and even called him “my only true friend”. He left his £11 million estate to the young Londoner after his death.
Three Studies For A Portrait Of John Edwards sold in Christie’s Post-War & Contemporary Evening Sale in New York on 13 May 2014 for $80.8 million to an anonymous Asian buyer, according to the Irish Times.
Portrait Of George Dyer Talking, £42,194,500
As the famous (but untrue) story goes – in 1963, Bacon caught George Dyer, an East London petty criminal, trying to burgle his home in South Kensington. The two were lovers until Dyer’s death in 1971. Portrait Of George Dyer Talking was made three years after their meeting and Dyer would appear in over 40 of Bacon’s paintings. The painting sold at Christie’s in New York for £4 million in 2000. When it came up for auction again at Christie’s in London 14 years later, it achieved £42 million.
Study From Innocent X, $52,680,000 (£26.5million)
Bacon painted variations of Diego Velázquez’s Portrait Of Innocent X for over 20 years, from 1949 to the mid-1960s, resulting in nearly 50 canvases. These ‘Screaming Popes’ are now considered Bacon’s most famous early works. While both Christie’s and Sotheby’s have offered a number of Bacon’s Pope Innocent X paintings over the last decade, none has topped Study From Innocent X, which sold at Sotheby’s in New York on 15 May 2007 for nearly $52.7 million.
Three Studies For A Portrait Of George Dyer, $51,767,500 (£39.9 million)
Three Studies For A Portrait Of George Dyer was Bacon’s first portrait of Dyer, made three months into their decade-long relationship. It was first owned by writer Roald Dahl, who was a fan of Bacon’s art – he used the royalties from James and the Giant Peach, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and the screenplay of the James Bond film You Only Live Twice to purchase the Dyer triptych along with three other Bacon artworks between 1964-67. By the time Three Studies was offered in Christie’s Post-War & Contemporary Evening Sale in New York on 17 May 2017, the triptych belonged to a new owner – but its provenance and importance propelled its value to $51.7 million.
Triptych 1974-1977, £26,340,500
Triptych 1974-1977 was the final painting in a series of triptychs that Bacon painted after the suicide of his lover George Dyer in 1971. The three canvases depict Dyer writhing on a sandy beach, swallowed by the void of a black umbrella. It was Bacon’s last painting to depict Dyer. When it was offered in Christie’s Post-War And Contemporary Art (Evening Sale) in London on 6 February 2008, three bidders competed for the important work. It was eventually won by a “young man with long hair who was carrying a leather jacket and spoke English” in the King Street saleroom, according to the New York Times.
Study For A Head, $50,380,000 (£39.4million)
Estimated at $20-30 million, Study For A Head achieved almost double its high estimate when it sold at Sotheby’s Contemporary Art Evening Auction in New York on 16 May 2019. Bidding started at $15 million and a four-minute bidding battle commenced between buyers in the saleroom and over the telephone, eventually selling for $50.3 million with fees. The painting was one of the earliest works by Bacon to enter into a private American collection and had only been exhibited once before in its whole history.
Study For Portrait, $49,812,500 (£36.9million)
Painted in 1977, Study For Portrait was one of the last portraits Bacon made of his late lover, George Dyer. The painting had belonged to Bacon’s friend Magnus Konow, who bought the work soon after it was completed. “Bacon would always talk about Dyer,” recalled Konow. “I think that he was the only man he really loved in his life. I find this work is so powerful – for me it is probably one of the best paintings of their mystical love affair, and that’s what drew me to it.” The work went on to sell for $49.8 million at Christie’s Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Sale in New York on 17 May 2018.