Bacon's US$46.2 million Pope portrait tops Sotheby's New York evening sale

This season's New York auction marathon came to a close with Sotheby's US$210 million Contemporary Art Evening Sale.

Amongst 27 lots offered, only one was unsold, bringing in a total hammer price of US$181 million – higher than its presale low estimate of US$170 million.

The sale's top lot was Francis Bacon's Study of Red Pope 1962. 2nd Version 1971 – the only painting by the British figurative painter depicting both the Pope and his lover, George Dyer – which realised US$46.2 million after fees.

Lot 115 | Francis Bacon | Study of Red Pope 1962, 2nd Version 1971, Oil on canvas
Created in 1971
198 x 147.5 cm
Provenance (Amended by The Value):

  • Marlborough Fine Art, Zürich
  • Private Collection, Europe (acquired from the above in February 1973)
  • Acquired by descent from the above by the present owner
  • Christie’s, London, 6 October 2017, unsold

Estimate: US$40,000,000 - 60,000,000
Hammer Price: US$40,000,000
Sold: US$46,284,500

The auctioneer began soliciting bids at US$35 million and saw unenthusiastic reception from both telephone and floor bidders. The hammer was dropped at US$40 million, offered by Grégoire Billault, the chairman of Contemporary Art at Sotheby's New York, for his client with paddle number 267. 

One of the major British artists of the post-World War II period, Francis Bacon is widely recognized for his iconic – often unsettling and blatant – images of scathed and traumatized humanity.

Inspired by Diego Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X, his renowned Papal portrait series, which he worked on for at least two decades, is no exception. Under his brushes, the benevolent, highly-respected Pope is casted as a victim of his own status, tortured by the weight of his authority.

Study of Red Pope 1962. 2nd Version 1971, the last painting in his Pope series, was originally created in 1962, when only Pope Innocent X was on the canvas. Later in 1971, he decided to rework the painting and placed his lover George Dyer next to the Pope, making it the only work by him that has both muses in the same composition.

Grégoire Billault placed the winning bid for his client with paddle number 267

Bacon's Papal painting series was inspired by Diego Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X

Francis Bacon (right) and his lover George Dyer (left)

Bacon’s relationship with George Dyer began in late 1963 in a pub in Soho. Dyer’s devotion to Bacon was fuelled by his admiration for Bacon’s intellect, power, and confidence. From the mid-1960s, Dyer became Bacon’s muse and was seen at every gallery opening.

However, their relationship soon went downhill due to Bacon’s tempestuous manner and increasingly destructive drinking. By 1971, Dyer had already attempted suicide on more than one occasion but saved by Bacon every time. At the Grand Palais in Paris in 1971, while Bacon was to be honoured with a major retrospective, Dyer was found dead from a drink and drugs overdose in the bathroom of the hotel.

According to literature and scholars, Pope Innocent X's sister-in-law Olimpia Maidalchini Pamphilj was actually the power behind his papal throne. The two were rumored to be having an affair; however, after the Pope's death, Olimpia wouldn't even pay for his burial but instead letting the body being dumped in a closet, where rats nibbled at it. 

Was Bacon reminded of this story of Pope and decided to include his lover Dyer in his painting? 

Part of Study of Red Pope 1962. 2nd Version 1971

Lot 119 | Cy Twombly | Untitled, Oil based house paint and wax crayon on canvas
Created in 1969
200 x 237.5 cm

  • Private Collection, Italy (acquired directly from the artist)
  • Gagosian Gallery, New York
  • Private Collection (acquired from the above in 1997)
  • Acquired from the above by the present owner

Estimate: US$40,000,000 - 60,000,000
Hammer Price: US$35,500,000
Sold: US$41,114,000

The second most expensive lot of the sale was Cy Twombly's Untitled. It was hammered downed at US$35.5 million, lower than its presale estimate. The winning bid was by Patti Wong, Chairman, Asia; for her client with paddle number 204 – possibly the third-party guarantor

Measuring 200 by 237.5 cm, Cy Twombly’s Untitled from 1969 is part of a limited number of panoramic canvases from his celebrated Blackboard series – characterized by the seemingly arbitrary scribbles on large grey background, reminiscent of chalk on a blackboard.

Another painting from the series, Untitled (New York City), now holds the auction record for the artist at US$70.5 million, set in 2015 at Sotheby’s New York. Many of his other blackboard paintings of similar tones and years are in the collection of museums, such as The Museum of Modern Art, New York and Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles.

Cy Twombly's Untitled (New York City), 1968, sold for US$70.5 million at Sotheby's New York in 2015

In 1953 and 1954, Cy Twombly served in the U.S. army as a cryptologist, studying the art of writing and solving codes. On his weekend leaves, the artist would spend his time developing scribbled, biomorphic sketches which laid the foundation for much of his subsequent work.

After his short military, the artist travelled between New York and Rome, where he took inspiration from the ancient graffiti inscribed on the walls of Roman ruins. Later from 1967 to 1971, Twombly abandoned his colourful, rich Baroque style and returned to his monochromatic roots, creating his famed large child-like Blackboard paintings.

Patti Wong, Chairman, Asia, won the bid for her client with paddle number 204

Cy Twombly was renowned for the intricate combination of words and images

Lot 108 | Andy Warhol | Elvis, Silkscreen ink and silver paint on canvas
Created in 1963
210.2 x 117.5 cm

  • Frederick W. Hughes, New York
  • Jane B. Holzer, Palm Beach
  • Acquired from the above in 1998 by the present owner

Estimate: US$15,000,000 – 25,000,000
Hammer Price: US$18,500,000
Sold: US$21,581,000

Andy Warhol is no doubt the star of this season's New York contemporary art sales, with his US$195 million Shot Sage Blue Marilyn becoming the second most expensive painting in auction history. 

Besides Marilyn Monroe and Campbell Soup, Elvis Presley is also an iconic subject in Warhol's painting. For the pop art master, the King of Rock and Roll is not merely a celebrity, but a brand designed for mass consumption not unlike a Coca-Cola bottle or Campbell's Soup Can.

The signature series is inspired by the image of Elvis Presley as a gunslinger from the western film Flaming Star. In his Presley paintings, the shimmering silver ground resembles the silver screen, while the overlapping images are reminiscent of a film strip, individual frames containing a single image but when viewed together producing a sense of dynamism and movement. 

In most of his Presley paintings, Warhol screens a number of images—ranging from singles to over eleven in one particular canvas—in a linear progression. Each painting in the series is similar, differed only in the number, distance, and shades of color of Presley's images.

Among them the "Doble Elvis" is created the most — one was sold at US$37 million at a New York auction last year. Another special one with eight Elvis on a 370-centimetre-wide canvas was sold by an Italian collector Annibale Berlingieri privately in 2008 for US$100 million. 

Warhol taking photo with his Elvis painting

Eight Elvises sold by Annibale Berlingieri in 2008 for US$100 million

Other highlight lots:

Lot 106 | Ed Ruscha | Cold Beer Beautiful Girls, Acrylic on canvas
Created in 1993
213.4 x 152.4 cm

  • John Berggruen Gallery, San Francisco
  • David Moyne, Tiburon, California
  • Christie's New York, 13 November 2002, lot 39 (consigned by the above)
  • Acquired from the above sale by the present owner

Estimate: US$15,000,000 – 25,000,000
Hammer Price: US$16,100,000
Sold: US$18,823,400

Lot 104 | David Hockney | Grand Canyon II, Acrylic on canvas
Created in 2017
121.9 x 243.8 cm

  • Pace Gallery, New York
  • Acquired from the above in 2018 by the present owner

Estimate: US$10,000,000 – 15,000,000
Hammer Price: US$9,800,000
Sold: US$11,584,700

Lot 110 | Georg Baselitz | Dresdner Frauen – Besuch aus Prag [Women of Dresden – Visit from Prague], Tempera on ash wood (The artist's auction record)
Created in 1990
150 x 75 x 45.7 cm

  • Pace Gallery, New York
  • Collection of Darwin and Geri Reedy, Minnesota (acquired by 1995) 
  • Pace Wildenstein, New York 
  • Holtermann Fine Art, London
  • Acquired from the above in 1996 by the present owner

Estimate: US$3,000,000 - 4,000,000
Hammer Price: US$9,500,000
Sold: US$11,240,000

Auction Details:
Auction House: Sotheby’s New York
Sale: Contemporary Evening Auction
Date: 19 May 2022 
Number of lots: 27
Sold: 26
Unsold: 1
Sale Rate: 96%
Sale Total: US$210,502,700