The Gist: What Will $70 Million Get You in the Art Market These Days?

Francis BaconPhoto: ULF Anderson/Getty Images

Wait, did you say Bacon? As in Francis Bacon, the guy who painted meat and blurry popes?
Yep. Sotheby’s is selling a Bacon triptych this May that they hope will go for $70 million. “Bacon used to be priced within the contemporary-art market,” says Sotheby’s Tobias Meyer. Then, starting in 2006, the Bacon market “started to align itself with the twentieth-century-masterpiece market, particularly toward Picasso.”

Bacon’s stock has skyrocketed just in the last two years?
Well, Bacon’s work crossed the $10 million mark in 2005. But yes, in January 2007, a Bacon painting sold privately to Henry Kravis for $35 million. Last spring, a self-portrait went for nearly $43 million in London, and a pope painting qsold in New York for nearly $53 million—the current record. Damien Hirst bid a tiny Bacon self-portrait up to $33 million in November. Next week at Christie’s, a triptych of self-portraits that sold for $5 million a few years ago could go for over $35 million.

Triptych, 1976Photo: Courtesy of Sotheby's, NY

And that’s it? A few rich guys buy Francis Bacon pictures, and suddenly all the billionaires need one?
Yes—and no. Bacon is one of the most exhibited artists in the world today, and his estate is working very hard to ensure the painter’s legacy is appreciated. More important, Bacon is still very relevant as an artist. He was one of the last great oil painters.

What do you mean by “last great oil painters?” What do they use now? House paint?
If you’re Damien Hirst, you do. But more broadly, it’s been a long time since a group of painters were concerned with figurative painting and the effects brushstrokes make on canvas. We’re starting to see a resurgence of this kind of painting, and Bacon, like de Kooning, is one of those rare painters whose work is about both figuration and abstraction. To put it another way, Bacon is more for fans of John Currin than Jeff Koons.

Study from Innocent X, 1962Photo: Courtesy of Sotheby's, NY

I still don’t buy it.
Don’t take my word for it. Here’s what Milan Kundera wrote: “Looking at Bacon’s portraits, I am amazed that, despite their ‘distortion,’ they all look like their subject. But how can an image look like a subject of which it is consciously, programmatically, a distortion? And yet it does … That is what I find miraculous.”

Great. Now I’m getting my art history from an exiled Czech who liked to chase girls.
The auction houses will tell you that Bacon appeals to buyers with lots of money (obviously) but also an interest in collecting masterpieces. According to Christie’s Brett Gorvy, they are “looking for art that is acknowledged by the market as much as it is by art history.” There aren’t many painters who qualify, and Bacon’s the latest to ride this self-perpetuating cycle.

With these huge sales, will the rest of us ever get to see his best work?
You still have a chance. The Tate Britain in London is mounting a major Bacon retrospective—the first in the U.K. since 1985—in September, and it will come to the Met in 2009.

The Gist: What Will $70 Million Get You in the Ar […]