US$27m Bacon portrait of tragic lover George Dyer leads Sotheby's Contemporary Evening Sale in New York

On the first day of New York marquee auction week (13 May), Sotheby's presented the Contemporary Evening Sale which brought in US$234.6 million from 32 of the 35 lots on offer. 

The most expensive lot of the evening was British figurative titan Francis Bacon's Portrait of George Dyer Crouching (1966), selling for US$27.7 million with fees. Fresh to market, the piece is the first of ten full-scale intimate paintings of his lover and muse executed between 1966 and 1968, when their passion for each other peaked. 

Following that price was that achieved by Lucio Fontana's Concetto spaziale, La fine di Dio, a yellow egg-shaped canvas from Dallas arts patrons Cindy and Howard Rachofsky, selling for US$22.9 million. Joan Mitchell's Noon (1969), one of four paintings by the artist from a private collection, achieved US$22.6 million, the third-highest price. 

Notably, all three works were backed by irrevocable bids ahead of the auction.  

Lot 115 | Francis Bacon (1909-1992) | Portrait of George Dyer Crouching, Oil on canvas
Executed in 1966
198 x 147 cm

  • Marlborough-Gerson Gallery Inc, New York
  • Private Collection, Caracas (acquired from the above in 1970)
  • Thence by descent to the present owner

Estimate: US$30,000,000 - 50,000,000
Hammer Price: US$24,500,000
Sold: US$27,735,000

Auctioneer Oliver Barker opened bidding for the lot at US$22 million and brought his gavel down at US$24.5 million, a bid offered by the client of Camilla Bertini, Deputy Director, Client Liaison, Project Coordinator, European Chairman’s Office, with paddle number 181. With fees, its final sum came to US$27.7 million. 

"Bacon’s portraits are the interrogation on the limits of the self. Up to what degree of distortion does an individual still remain himself? To what degree of distortion does a beloved being still remain a beloved being?" the great novelist Milan Kundera once said of the artist's work. 

If Bacon's art was defined by the attempts to get the essence of human existence in all its forms, it was his portrayal of his lived experience through those closest to him which defined his finest work. George Dyer, the artist's greatest love and muse, provided some of the highest highs and lowest lows. 

Camilla Bertini won the lot for her client with paddle number 181

George Dyer and Francis Bacon in Soho in the 1950s | Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane

In the Autumn of 1963, when Bacon was almost 54 and Dyer was around 30, the two met in a pub in Soho. At first glance, Bacon was instantly attracted to the handsome young man with the build of a Michelangelo figure and an air of latent violence from his background as an East Ender born into a life of petty crime.

The early days of their affair were light-hearted, and their behavior together frequently bordered on the comic, with Bacon playing the sophisticated older man to the East Ender’s bewilderment at the "ways up West" as they moved from champagne at the Ritz to dinner in an elegant restaurant and gambling in a Mayfair casino. 

At the height of their rollercoaster love affair, Bacon executed ten single-panel portraits that see Dyer as a conduit of the full range of human drama, providing a raw window into scenes of their ordinary daily life. 

Of these ten works, three are now held in international museum collections, one was destroyed in a fire, leaving just six in private hands. Debuting at Bacon’s seminal 1966 solo exhibition at Galerie Maeght, Paris, Portrait of George Dyer Crouching has since been shown in some of the artist’s most significant exhibitions, including his 1971 retrospective held at the Grand Palais, Paris – the scene of Dyer’s final tragedy. 

Francis Bacon | Portrait of George Dyer Riding a Bicycle (1966) | Foundation Beyeler, Riehen 

Francis Bacon | Portrait of George Dyer and Lucian Freud | Destroyed in a fire, 1979

Francis Bacon | Portrait of George Dyer Talking | Sold: £42,194,500 (US$70.2 million), Christie's London, 2014

Beneath their intense relationship were in fact two conflicted men troubled by endless quarrels. As Dyer left his turbulous past behind, he felt increasingly purposeless and began drinking heavily day and night. Bacon, on the other hand, was disappointed to find a gentle soul where he had expected a ruthless dominator. 

When Bacon began distancing himself from their affair, Dyer was even more desperate, at one point planting marijuana in the artist's studio after tipping off the police to initiate a search. 

The relationship unraveled further, but since so many portraits of Dyer were included in the 1971 Bacon retrospective, Bacon invited him to the opening – but it ultimately shattered him: Dyer, like his former lover Peter Lacy, was dead, right before the opening. The desperate man took his life in the bathroom of a hotel in Paris.

Trapped in the abyss of guilt and grief, Bacon went on to create a series of his posthumous paintings known as the Black Triptychs, which replayed in harrowing detail the tragic events of his lover's last, lonely hours.

The present work (right) exhibited in Francis Bacon, Grand Palais, Paris, 1971-1972

Francis Bacon | In Memory of George Dyer (1971) | Foundation Beyeler, Basel

Lot 112 | Lucio Fontana (1899-1968) | Concetto spaziale, La fine di Dio, Oil on canvas
Executed in 1964 
177.8 x 123 cm
Provenance (Consolidated by The Value based on known information):

  • Sotheby's, New York, 25 June 2003, Lot 15
  • The Rachofsky Collection, Dallas (acquired from the above)

Estimate: US$20,000,000 - 30,000,000
Hammer Price: US$19,700,000
Sold: US$22,969,800

One of the most accomplished in Fontana's era-defining series of Concetto Spaziale, La fine de Dio, this yolk-coloured egg-shaped canvas last hit the market 2003, when its consignor, important Dallas arts patrons Cindy and Howard Rachofsky, purchased it for a record-setting price at Sotheby's New York. It was also a highlight of the artist’s retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2019.

On an opening bid of US$17 million, two interested buyers – a live bidder and one on the phone with global head of private sales David Schrader – briskly drove the price to US$19.5 million. As the auctioneer fished for bids, a new bidder in the room stepped in and offered a bid of US$19.7 million.

Eventually, that bidder, with paddle number 2029, took the lot home with that bid, paying a final sum with fees of US$22.9 million. 

Dallas arts patrons Cindy and Howard Rachofsky

The present lot  was a highlight of the Lucio Fontana: On the Threshold exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2019

Of the thirty-eight monumental paintings that make up this series, the present one is one of only four Fontana created in cadmium yellow. In 2015, another, sold by billionaire money manager Steven A. Cohen, set an auction for the artist at US$29.2 million at Christie's New York. 

Titled La fine di Dio, the series is among the most coveted works Fontana created, setting all six of the artist's top prices at auction and being held in prestigious museums such as The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid; and Centre Pompidou, Paris.

Lucio Fontana

Lucio Fontana slashing the canvas

Lucio Fontana | Concetto spaziale, La fine di Dio (1964) | Sold: US$29,173,000, Christie's New York, 2015 (Auction record for the artist)

These avant-garde canvases were executed for three major exhibitions of Fontana's work in Zurich, Milan, and Paris between 1963 and 1964. 

The 1960s witnessed major scientific discoveries and developments around the world, most notably surrounding space travel, a subject that completely fascinated the 63-year-old Fontana.

Just two years before Fontana began the series, Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin orbited the earth for the first time, and the US publicly announced their goal to land a man on the moon before the end of the decade. 

With outer space on his mind, the forward-thinking Fontana sought to explore some of the broad notions raised by these discoveries in his art. For him, the irregular holes and punctures across the canvas – which evokes a sort of lunar surface – opened portals to an unknown cosmos of a painting, a new concept of space befitting the age of astronauts. The egg, meanwhile, was a potent symbol of a new life and a new universe.

Details of the present lot

Lot 108 | Joan Mitchell (1925-1992) | Noon, Oil on canvas
Executed circa 1969
259.1 x 200.7 cm

  • Galerie Jean Fournier et Cie, Paris and Martha Jackson Gallery, New York
  • Private Collection, New Haven (acquired from the above in May 1973)
  • Xavier Fourcade, Inc., New York
  • Private Collection, New York (acquired from the above in February 1980)
  • Christie's, New York, 10 May 2016, lot 18B (consigned by the above)
  • Acquired from the above sale by the present owner

Estimate: US$15,000,000 - 20,000,000
Hammer Price: US$20,500,000
Sold: US$22,615,400

Noon (circa 1969) was the star of four guaranteed Joan Mitchell abstract paintings from a private collection headed to auction, carrying the quartet's highest estimate of US$15 to 20 million. 

Bidding for the lot opened at US$13 million and immediately attracted a flurry of bids from at least five interested buyers, including two bidders in the room and three on the phone with Sotheby's specialists based in New York and China. 

Rising by half-million increments, its price eventually reached US$20.5 million – a winning bid placed by a lady in the room with paddle number 2139. With fees, the work fetched US$22.6 million, becoming the third-most expensive lot in the sale. 

The lady with paddle number 2139 won the lot for a hammer price of US$20.5 million

Joan Mitchell (circa 1958) by Water Silver | The Water Silver Collection, The New York Public Library

At a time when women were underrepresented in the art world, Joan Mitchell was one of the few female artists to attain critical acclaim and commercial success, establishing herself as a key figure among the second generation of Abstract Expressionists. 

When the 24-year-old Mitchell arrived in New York in 1949, her expansive, dynamic canvases packed with rhythmic counterposed lines had swiftly attracted the attention of the city's Abstract Expressionist leaders, including Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline and Philip Guston. She drank and debated with them at the Cedar Tavern and The Club, the members-only salon where the artists met for weekly discussions.

Mitchell, however, refused pure abstracts or any other aestheitc labels, instead developing her own artistic vocabulary, known as "abstacted landscape", in which she captured in paint internal topographies of emotion and remembered vistas, as she once said, "I could certainly never mirror nature. I would like more to paint what it leaves me with."

Details of the present lot

Joan Mitchell photographed in Vétheuil in 1972

Despite having amassed massive success in New York by the 1950s, she decided to leave the city and relocate to Paris in 1959. By the mid-1960s, weary of Paris and feeling sidelined by the rise of Pop and New Realism on the local art scene, she began to look for a new home in the countryside. With the money Mitchell inherited from her mother following her death, in 1968 she purchased a magnificent house in Vétheuil, a small town near Claude Monet's renowned Giverny Garden. 

Since then, the fertile, sun-drenched landscape with a direct view of the Seine had served as a major source of inspiration for the artist. In her work, she accepted all of Vétheuil’s offerings: her palette took on the region’s ultramarines, sunny yellows, and tangerines, all of which would comprise her signature palette until her death. 

Noon, executed around a year after she settled in the French countryside, captures her heartfelt affection on the land where she would call home for the rest of her life, poetically translating the landscape into bursting color and form. 

Other lots that sold above US$10 million:

Lot 105 | Andy Warhol (1928-1987) and Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988) | Untitled, Acrylic, oilstick and graphite on canvas
Executed in 1984
294.6 x 419.7 cm

  • Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat
  • Sotheby's New York, 12 May 2010, lot 40 (consigned by the above)
  • Acquired from the above sale by the present owner

Estimate: US$15,000,000 - 20,000,000
Hammer Price: US$17,000,000
Sold: US$19,367,500

Lot 113 | Frank Stella (1936-2024) | Ifafa I, Metallic powder in polymer emulsion on canvas
Executed in 1964
196.9 x 342.9 cm

  • Leo Castelli Gallery, New York (LC# 190)
  • Acquired from the above in 1964 by the present owner

Estimate: US$14,000,000 - 18,000,000
Hammer Price: US$14,000,000
Sold: US$15,280,250

Lot 128 | Andy Warhol (1928-1987) | Late Four-Foot Flowers, Acrylic, silkscreen ink and graphite on canvas 
Executed in 1967
121.9 x 121.9 cm

  • Patricia Caulfield, New York (acquired from the artist)
  • Leo Castelli Gallery, New York (LC# 879)
  • Roger J. Davison, Toronto (by 1972)
  • Jared Sable, Toronto
  • Locksley Shea Gallery, Minneapolis
  • Miles and Shirley Fiterman, Minneapolis
  • Phillips New York, November 2019, lot 17 (consigned by the above)
  • Acquired from the above sale by the present owner

Estimate: US$7,000,000 - 10,000,000
Hammer Price: US$9,500,000
Sold: US$11,250,000

Lot 109 | Joan Mitchell (1925-1992) | Ground, Oil on canvas, in two parts
Executed in 1989
220 x 395 cm

  • Robert Miller Gallery, New York
  • Private Collection, Illinois (by 1992)
  • Edward Tyler Nahem, New York
  • Acquired from the above in August 2007 by the present owner

Estimate: US$12,000,000 - 18,000,000
Hammer Price: US$8,500,000
Sold: US$10,101,000

Lot 110 | Joan Mitchell (1925-1992) | Untitled, Oil on canvas
Executed circa 1955
139.7 x 187.3 cm

  • The Artist
  • Robert Miller Gallery, New York (acquired directly from the artist circa 1988)
  • Private Collection, Seattle
  • Acquired from the above in January 2008 by the present owner

Estimate: US$8,000,000 - 12,000,000
Hammer Price: US$8,500,000
Sold: US$10,101,000

Lot 125 | Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988) | Campaign, Acrylic, oilstick and silkscreen on canvas
Executed in 1984
218 x 173 cm

  • Carpenter and Hochman Gallery, Dallas
  • Private Collection, New York (acquired from the above in 1985)
  • James Goodman Gallery, New York (acquired from the above)
  • Galerie Terminus, Munich (acquired from the above in February 2005)
  • Private Collection, Switzerland (acquired from the above in 2007)
  • Sotheby's London, 10 February 2015, lot 50 (consigned by the above)
  • Acquired from the above sale by the present owner

Estimate: US$8,000,000 - 12,000,000
Hammer Price: US$8,500,000
Sold: US$10,101,000

Auction Details:

Auction House: Sotheby's New York
Sale: Contemporary Evening Auction
Date: 13 May 2024
Number of Lots: 35
Sold: 32
Sale Rate: 91%
Sale Total: US$234,578,050