Bacon’s study of Freud sets auction record at Christie’s, but that shouldn’t come as surprise

November 13, 2013

Once again, the art world celebrates. On Tuesday, Francis Bacon’s “Three Studies of Lucian Freud” became the priciest artwork ever sold at auction, going for $142.4 million at what is now the highest-grossing art sale ever. Christie’s broke its own record from last year by nearly $200 million, selling $691.6 million of contemporary art in New York. Jeff Koons, the conceptual contemporary artist known for his balloon dog sculptures, also became the highest-grossing living artist, with an orange balloon dog selling for $58.4 million.

The numbers seem remarkable, perhaps stunning, to casual observers or those who confuse this Francis Bacon with the 16th-century statesman. But these
record-breaking art sales shouldn’t be surprising.

Bacon’s 1969 triptych was expected to sell for more than $100 million, with art publications running huge features on the impending sale of the work. Painted late in Bacon’s career, it depicts another artist, Freud, in a wooden chair sitting in three poses, as the title suggests. Christie’s gave the work an estimate of $85 million, a low figure, considering that it sold for $86.3 million in 2008. Some art-world watchers thought it might break or come close to the record for the highest sale at auction, previously set by Edvard Munch’s “The Scream,” which sold for $120 million in 2012.

Over the past 11 days, auction houses around the world have presided over bids totaling nearly $2 billion for art and jewelry, Sotheby’s told the Associated Press — including a 1963 Andy Warhol painting, “Silver Car Crash (Double Disaster),” that sold Wednesday at a New York auction for $105 million, setting a record for a Warhol.

These record-breaking prices follow years of strong sales. The average annual return of the Mei Moses All Art Index was 13.83 percent from 2007 to 2012, far greater than the S&P 500 or the Dow Jones industrial average. Some massive private sales broke records this year, too, including Steve Wynn’s sale of Picasso’s “Le Reve” for $155 million to hedge fund titan Steve Cohen. For some, it might be tempting to read into these sales or to assume it says something about the broader economy.


This undated photo provided by Christie's shows "Three Studies of Lucian Freud," a triptych by Francis Bacon of his friend and artist Lucian Freud. The 1969 painting by Bacon set a world record for the most expensive artwork ever sold at auction when it sold Tuesday evening Nov. 12, 2013 for $142.4 million. (AP/AP)

“There is a rough correlation between stock markets and the art market, but to be more specific is really difficult,” said David Galenson, a professor of economics at the University of Chicago who writes about art and art markets. Though we can try to read more into this sale, he describes it as a case of “two very rich guys wanting to buy this painting.”

But global stock markets are performing well this year, meaning those at the top who can afford seven-figure lots are probably doing well, too. The sale reflects the Washington talking point that the growing wealth disparity, both in the United States and across the world, is widening at a worrying rate. Last month, the Wall Street Journal reported that 35 percent of Russia’s wealth lies in the hands of 110 people. That wealth can buy a lot of Bacon and balloon dogs.

But it’s not all good news for the art market. With so much talk of an art bubble, whether it’s bursting or about to burst, it’s not surprising that higher-priced pieces and wealthier buyers are turning up at auction. Felix Salmon of the Reuters news agency has a nuanced take on why these soaring prices might indicate that the mythical art bubble will burst soon. Salmon highlights what was once rare: Flipping works — formerly frowned upon by galleries and auction houses — is becoming more common. Flipping works can make for a strong season, but it doesn’t necessarily mean these prices will last much longer. As Salmon predicted, there’s another reason for flipping and soaring prices:

“If we see another record-breaking season in New York this week, don’t take that as a bullish sign. It could just be that we’re entering a period of feverish selling.”

Katherine Boyle reports on arts, museums and culture for the Style section.
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