This is a record that is continuously broken as each auction season rolls around, but this week, at the Christie’s Contemporary art night auction, a 1969 Francis Bacon triptych sold for $142.4 million. We’ll get back to that in a minute, but there is an entire chapter in “The $12 Million Stuffed Shark” (I cannot recommend this book enough!) on a 2006 sale of another Francis Bacon triptych at Christie’s London that was estimated to bring in £3.5-5.5 million.
Five point five million pounds ($10.2 million) would have been a world auction record for the artist. At the Impressionist and modern art auction held at Christie’s two nights earlier, £5.5 million would have purchased two oils by Claude Monet, Péches and Oliviers et palmiers, vallée de Sasso; a Camille Pissarro, La vallée de la Seine aux Damps, jardin d’Octave Mirbeau; and a gorgeous and large Paul Cézanne, Maisons dans la venture.
That was 2006. The final bid on that triptych was £3.5 million, and with auction house/buyer charges, it sold for £3.8 million. Francis Bacon’s work is highly coveted, because the artist died in 1992, and is largely considered one of the most important British artists ever to have lived and painted. This 2006 record was broken by another Bacon painting in 2007, Study for Portrait II, with the sale at auction of £14 million ($27.6 million) again at Christie’s London. Sotheby’s beat that Bacon record the same year, with the sale of Study from Innocent X. That painting sold for $52.7 million, almost doubling the Christie’s record and elevating Bacon to an exclusive arena in art history. In two years, the value of Bacon’s work rose from £3.8 million to $53 million.
The record for most expensive artwork ever sold changes hands/artists frequently. In 2010, it was held by a Picasso, Nude, Green Leaves and Bust, which sold for $106 million at a Christie’s auction. In 2012, this was beat by the sale of Edvard Munch’s The Scream, which sold at Sotheby’s for $120 million. And then this past Tuesday, that record was shattered by Bacon’s three canvases, each six feet high, depicting friend and rival Lucien Freud sitting in a chair.
The buyer has not been identified by Christie’s, but was bid on by dealer William Acquavella for a client. There were seven underbidders in total, and bidding lasted 10 minutes, propelling from the opening bid of $40 million to a final price $57 million more than the $85 million Christie’s had estimated the triptych would fetch.
Whether or not you would have paid that much (and I wouldn’t have. That $142 million would go so many other places first), auctions are a fascinating thing. Most, like this one at Christie’s, are invitation only, and the bidders have all been vetted in advance. Dealers come on behalf of clients, high roller collectors make appearances, museum representatives come with board approval as to how much they are allowed to spend, and there is an entire section of women in black dresses on phones bidding on behalf of international buyers.
A few things about an auction are completely transparent –the number of people bidding in the room, the hammer price, the auctioneer’s performance. Almost everything else is opaque: who is actually bidding, how estimates and reserve prices are set, which bids are real and which artificial. Does the auction house itself own the painting being shown? Has it guaranteed the price to the consignor, and thus have a financial interest in the outcome?
The auctioneer has a book in front of him on the podium noting the order of the lots to be brought up for auction, the reserve price, where expected bidders on each lot are sitting in the audience, as well as any bids left in advance by those wishing to remain anonymous. Things like where a specific painting is placed in the order of lots for auction, the pacing of the auctioneer’s bid offers, and the psychology of bidders are all delicately moving elements that make an auction the spectacle it is.
A [typical] auction has the most expensive works interspersed between Lots 12 and 45, with the feature lot between 25 and 30. If there are three or four strong lots, the feature work can come as early as Lot 10…An expensive work is followed by three or four with lower estimates. The spacing builds peaks of interest and provides reference prices to make the works between seem more reasonable.
All auctions are video recorded to protect the auction from a bidder who might regret their fast paddle-work the moment the bidding has ended. You enter into a contract to buy the work you win, though secretly, auction houses sometimes offer financing for more established clients, and can also accept payment in the form of artwork consigned for later sale.
It’s important to note that while the $142.4 million dollar hammer price is staggering, there is some doubt as to whether the Bacon triptych is actually the most expensive piece of artwork sold at auction. When accounting for inflation, the highest price ever paid at auction for a single piece of art would be the $82.5 million paid in 1990 ($147 million in today’s dollars, $3 million more than the Bacon sold for this week) for Van Gogh’s Portrait of Doctor Gachet. I know which one I’d rather have hanging in my living room.
Understandably, I am dying to go to an auction. There are sometimes standing-room-only admissions granted at night auctions; it’s now on my must list to see one in person.
all quotes © Don Thompson, “The $12 Million Stuffed Shark”