Bacon’s Study for a Head Fetches US$50.4m at Sotheby’s Contemporary Art Evening Sale

Sotheby’s capped off New York auction week with a solid Contemporary Art Evening Sale totalling US$341m. The sale was led by Francis Bacon’s Study for a Head (1952) that sold for US$50.4m and Mark Rothko’s Untitled (1960) from San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) that fetched US$50m.

Francis Bacon’s Study for a Head (1952)

Study for a Head (1952), estimated at US$20m-30m, broadcasts Francis Bacon’s most celebrated and recognizable iconography, which today remains one of the most pertinent, universal. It presents the iconic and tortured scream of Bacon’s best-known Popes.

David Schrader, Senior Vice President New York, Head of Private Sale

The bidding opened at US$15m and the price soon rose up to US$30m with strong interest from room bidders and telephone. As the price reached US$40m, remaining in the battlefield were a room bidder and the telephone bidder represented by David Schrader, Senior Vice President New York.

The painting was hammered down at US$44m, a winning bid made by the room bidder. It was sold for US$50.38m after premium.

Francis Bacon

Study after Velázquez's Portrait of Pope Innocent X

The painting features a subject about the human-animal as unadorned, despairing and alone. The archetype Bacon appropriated as a starting point for his Pope series was Diego Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X from 1650, a painting about which Bacon felt “Haunted and obsessed by the image…its perfection.” Bacon replaces the subjective idiosyncrasies of the grand state portrait with an intimate visage of pain and suffering that stands as proxy for the torment of the human race.

Mark Rothko’s Untitled 1960

Mark Rothko

Another highlight of the sale was Mark Rothko’s Untitled from 1960, estimated to fetch US$35m-50m. It is a property from the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA). It is one of just 19 paintings on canvas by Rothko from 1960 and nearly half of which reside in museum collections.

Peggy Guggenheim

The bidding started at US$30m and steadily went up to US$43m. By then, it became a contest between the telephone bidders represented by Patti Wong (Chairman of Sotheby’s Asia) and Amy Cappellazzo (Chairman of Fine Art division). The latter one won the bid by offering US$43.75m, at which the auctioneer put the hammer down. The painting was sold for US$50.09m after premium.

Patti Wong, Chairman of Sotheby’s Asia

Amy Cappellazzo, Chairman of Fine Art division

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

SFMOMA reopened in May 2016, following a major three-year-long expansion project. Proceeds from the sale of Untitled (1960) will be used to purchase works for the museum.

Bacon’s Study for Portrait (1981)

Bacon and his lover George Dyer

The third top lot of the sale fell to Bacon’s Study for Portrait (1981), estimated at US$12m -18m. Depicting Bacon’s lover and muse George Dyer, the painting encompasses the full range of the thrilling human drama: at once vulnerable, brooding, romantic, heroic, and tortured.

Bacon first encountered Dye breaking into his home one night in 1963. Being an alcoholic and convicted petty crook, Dyer was attracted to Bacon’s self-confidence and intellect, while Bacon was drawn by the younger man’s aura of criminal risk. The two fell deeply in love, and from that moment on, Dyer played an important part in Bacon’s life and art.

The present work is among the most drastically reworked paintings that Bacon ultimately kept, rather than destroyed. A relentless self-editor, Bacon not only destroyed many of his paintings, but he also reworked and continually altered what had originally been dubbed ‘completed'. The painting was hammered down at US$12.5m and sold for US$14.5m after premium.

Top three lots

Francis Bacon (1909-1992). Study for a Head. Oil and sand on canvas

Lot no.: 9
Executed in: 1952
Size: 66 x 56cm
Inscribed with artist’s symbol

  • Beaux Arts Gallery, London
  • Bernard H. Friedman, New York
  • Sanford Friedman, New York (gift from the above)
  • Acquavella Galleries, Inc., New York (acquired from the above)
  • Acquired by the present owner from the above in 1975

Estimate: US$20,000,000 - 30,000,000
Hammer price: US$44,000,000
Price realised: US$50,380,000

Mark Rothko (1903-1970). Untitled. Oil on canvas

Lot no.: 12
Signed and dated 1960 on reverse
Size: 175.3 x 127.3cm

  • The artist
  • Acquired from the above through a gift of Peggy Guggenheim, 1962

Estimate: US$35,000,000 - 50,000,000
Hammer price: US$43,750,000
Price realised: US$50,095,250

Francis Bacon (1909-1992). Study for Portrait. Oil and dry transfer lettering on canvas

Lot no.: 26
Signed and titled and dated 1981 on reverse
Size: 198.1 x 148cm

  • Marlborough Gallery Inc., New York
  • Acquired by the present owner from the above in February 1983

Estimate: US$12,000,000 - 18,000,000
Hammer price: US$12,500,000
Price realised: US$14,501,500

Auction summary

Auction house: Sotheby’s New York
Sale: Contemporary Art Evening Auction
Sale: 16 May 2019
Lots offered: 63
Sold: 56
Unsold: 7
Sold by lots: 88%
Sale total: US$341,850,050