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Bacon’s Nude Model Tops $126.5 Million Christie’s U.K. Auction

"Portrait of Henrietta Moraes," a 1963 painting by Francis Bacon, sold in an auction of Post-War & Contemporary Art at Christie's International, London, on Feb. 14. The work fetched the equivalent of $33.3 million including auction house fees. Source: Christie's International via Bloomberg

A Francis Bacon portrait of a naked model sprawled on a bed and a Gerhard Richter abstract last night boosted a 80.6 million pound ($126.5 million) auction as contemporary artworks drew multiple bids.

Bacon’s sexually charged 1963 canvas “Portrait of Henrietta Moraes” fetched $33.3 million, topping the 65-lot Christie’s International sale. The total was the company’s second-highest for a contemporary-art auction in London and was greeted with whoops and applause from Christie’s staff members.

“We expected fireworks, and we got it,” London-based art adviser Wendy Goldsmith said in an interview. “When you add all the extras up, the prices are high. Where will it end?”

Bacon is the U.K.’s most expensive artist at auction. The portrait’s final price of 21.3 million pounds with fees beat an 18-million-pound hammer-value estimate. The sale demonstrated investment demand for his paintings and the attractiveness of the U.K. capital as an auction venue, with its population of wealthy international residents, dealers said.

Sheldon Solow, a Manhattan real estate developer and art collector, was identified by dealers as the Bacon’s seller. The work was bought on the telephone by Sumiko Roberts of Christie’s London-based client services department, representing a customer, against two other telephone bidders.

“For a Bacon, it was a commercial image,” the London-based dealer Offer Waterman said in an interview. “I don’t think it would have fetched a higher price in a gallery.”

Record Triptych

The Bacon auction record is $86.3 million for a 1976 “Triptych” at Sotheby’s New York, in May 2008.

At least four telephone bidders were prepared to pay the upper estimate of 7 million pounds for Richter’s large green, blue and pink “Abstraktes Bild,” dating from 1994 and never offered at auction before.

Interest in the painting was high, following the recent Richter retrospective at Tate Modern and the record $20.8 million paid by the collector Lily Safra for a 1997 abstract by the artist at Sotheby’s New York in November.

It was eventually bought by Christie’s New York-based specialist Andrew Massad, bidding for a client on the telephone, for 9.9 million pounds.

There was also a flurry of telephone bidding for the 1990 black-and-white word painting “Untitled,” showing the word “FOOL,” by the U.S. artist Christopher Wool, who is consistently in demand at contemporary-art fairs. Again fresh to the auction market, this was sold to a record telephone bid of 4.9 million pounds handled by Pedro Girao, chairman of Christie’s European advisory board.

Gilbert & George

Girao, using the same paddle number, was also the buyer of the 1975 Gilbert & George photo piece “Bloody Life No. 13,” for 1.3 million pounds, just exceeding the high estimate.

The auction beat a revised low estimate of 56.7 million pounds with 89 percent of the lots finding buyers. The total may have been a record had it not been for the last-minute withdrawal of a 1955 abstract by Mark Rothko, valued at 9 million pounds to 12 million pounds.

“We’re working on a private sale,” Francis Outred, Christie’s London-based head of contemporary-art said, explaining its absence.

Other highlights included the 5.3 million pounds paid by a telephone buyer for the 1953 Nicolas de Stael landscape “Agrigente,” valued at 3.5 million pounds to 5 million pounds, and the 657,250 pounds paid by the London-based dealer Stephen Ongpin for the 1948 Lucian Freud drawing “Boat, Connemara,” priced at 200,000 pounds to 300,000 pounds.

Bidder Numbers

“Christie’s had a solid sale,” said Waterman. “There were only a few failures and most of the successful lots had at least two bidders on them.”

The previous evening, Bonhams encountered far more selective bidding at the second sale by its new contemporary-art department in London. The catalog contained just 20 lots and about half of the works found buyers at the auction itself. The event raised an official total of 1.1 million pounds with fees against a low estimate of 1.8 million pounds, based on hammer prices.

The top result was the 481,250 pounds given for a 1960 Frank Auerbach charcoal head of Freud. The seller of a 2006 Urs Fischer sculpture had been guaranteed a minimum price. It failed to sell against an estimate of as much as 600,000 pounds.

(Scott Reyburn writes about the art market for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own.)

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