Christie’s Aims to Score $70 Million With Rare Francis Bacon Triptych

It depicts his lover, a petty gangster from London's East End.

Francis Bacon, Three Studies for a Portrait of George Dyer (1963). Courtesy Christie's.

Christie’s will tap a major market force at its May 17 postwar and contemporary art auction in New York, having snagged a Francis Bacon triptych, Three Studies for a Portrait of George Dyer (1963), which is tagged at between $50 and $70 million. If the painting makes its high estimate, it will earn a place as Bacon’s fourth-priciest work at auction.

Freshness to market and an intriguing provenance are among the factors that auction houses tout when offering paintings, and this canvas has both; it has never before come to auction, and it was once in the collection of the children’s book author Roald Dahl, author of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. (The current seller is unnamed.)

The 14-inch-high paintings depict Bacon’s lover, George Dyer, with Bacon’s trademark distorted physiognomy and a tight focus on Dyer’s face from three distinct angles, one in each canvas, against a black background.

In the artist’s catalogue raisonné, Dyer is characterized as a “petty criminal from the East End of London.” His first meeting with Bacon was long said to have taken place when he broke into the artist’s house; as Sotheby’s points out in an essay, they in fact met at a SoHo pub. Dyer was affiliated with notorious gangsters who became a fixture at Bacon’s gallery openings during their tortured, alcohol-soaked relationship. Dyer would commit suicide just two days before an opening of a Bacon exhibition at Paris’s Grand Palais in 1971. (Bacon would die of a heart attack two decades later, while on vacation in Spain.)

Three Studies for a Portrait of George Dyer was painted not only during the initial flush of their relationship, but also during a career high for Bacon, the year after his first major retrospective, at Tate in London, and the same year as a show at New York’s Guggenheim Museum, in 1963.

Bacon has been a force at auction in recent years, and his larger triptychs have exerted a particular spell over buyers. Three Studies of Lucian Freud (1969) sold for $142.4 million in 2013, which was at the time the highest price ever paid for an artwork at auction. That work had been estimated in excess of $85 million, and the final price smashed the late artist’s previous record of $86.3 million, fetched in May 2008 at Sotheby’s New York for a triptych from 1976. Moreover, his top 20 prices have all come since 2007, according to the artnet Price Database.

The painting will go on view at Christie’s London from February 24–March 8.

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