Record-Setting Francis Bacon Pope Painting Might Provide Fourfold Return on Investment

Francis Bacon, Study for a Pope I (1961). Photo: courtesy Sotheby's London.

At next month’s contemporary art evening auction, Sotheby’s London will offer three paintings by Francis Bacon, including a work from the artist’s well-known “Pope” series that helped give birth to the painter’s booming market.

Study for a Pope I is one of six pope paintings the artist created in 1961 for an exhibition at the Tate. During the 1950s and ’60s, Bacon made over 45 pope paintings, each based on Diego Velázquez’s 1650 work, Portrait of Pope Innocent X. Sotheby’s expects the painting will sell for £25 million–£35 million ($38.3 million–53.7 million).

Following the Tate exhibition, photographer and art collector Gunter Sachs, Brigitte Bardot’s ex-husband, bought Study for a Pope I. He sold the canvas in 2005 for £10 million ($18 million), setting a record for the artist and sending the Bacon market to even further heights.

“Bacon used to be priced within the contemporary-art market,” then–Sotheby’s auctioneer Tobias Meyer told New York Magazine in 2008. Following Bacon’s first £10 million sale, his market “started to align itself with the twentieth-century-masterpiece market, particularly toward Picasso.”

Francis Bacon, Three Studies of Lucian Freud (1969), sold at Christie's New York for a record $142.4 million.

Francis Bacon, Three Studies of Lucian Freud (1969), sold at Christie’s New York for a record $142.4 million.

In November 2013, Bacon’s triptych Three Studies of Lucian Freud became the world’s most expensive artwork sold at auction, bringing in $142.4 million at Christie’s New York. That mark was surpassed last month by Pablo Picasso’s Women of Algiers (see $179 Million Picasso Sets Stratospheric Record at Christie’s $705.9 Million “Looking Forward” Sale).

The Bacon market has grown so dramatically that even matching the low pre-sale estimate on Study for a Pope I would give the seller a fourfold return on the 2005 sale. The painting is not, however, expected to match the £42.2 million ($64.7 million) fetched by Bacon’s Portrait of George Dyer Talking (1966) last year at Christie’s London, now the record for a non-triptych by the artist.

A Sotheby's employee holds Francis Bacon, <em>Self-Portrait, 1975), in front of the artist's <em>Three Studies for Self-Portrait</em> (1980). Photo: courtesy of Sotheby’s.

A Sotheby’s employee holds Francis Bacon, Self-Portrait, 1975), in front of the artist’s Three Studies for Self-Portrait (1980).
Photo: courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Other post-war British artists, including Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff, are also commanding higher prices at auction. “All of these British artists are gaining increasing international interest and the values of their works are rising,” Oliver Barker, deputy chairman of Sotheby’s Europe, told the Financial Times.

The upcoming July 1 sale is anticipating £204 million ($312.9 million) in total sales, 35 percent will come from works by British artists, up from just 12 percent of the total sales at the 2010 sale.

Included in this group is a 1975 Bacon self-portrait as well as three of the artist’s studies for a 1980 self-portrait; the studies and the self-portrait have a high estimate of $15 million ($23 million).

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