Francis Bacon triptych sells for £23m – three times its estimate

Three Studies for a Portrait of Lucian Freud by his friend Francis Bacon saw more than 10 bidders compete for the work

A triptych of Lucian Freud portraits by his friend Francis Bacon have been sold for £23m at Sotheby's in London, three times the pre-sale estimate.

Three Studies for a Portrait of Lucian Freud (right) had created a buzz before the sale. The question was not if it would make its pre-sale estimate of £7m-£9m, but how much higher it would go.

More than 10 bidders competed for the work. After seven minutes of bidding, it reached £20.5m and a hopeful telephone bidder asked if £20.6m could be offered. The auctioneer, Tobias Meyer, insisted on £21m. "I don't want to sound arrogant, but we've come so far," he said. There was applause as he finally banged his hammer.

Cheyenne Westphal, the auction house's chairman of contemporary art in Europe, said: "This striking painting has everything a collector in the current market is looking for. It is an artwork that radiates 'wall-power' with its brilliant colour and dramatic brushstrokes."

The triptych has been in the same private collection for nearly 50 years and is a testament to the close friendship of two of the titans of 20th century British art. This triptych, Sotheby's said, contained an "intensity and intimacy that is rarely seen elsewhere".

Bacon, who died in 1992, and Freud were kindred spirits: close friends who often saw each other every day. They gambled together, drank in the same Soho dens and painted each other.

At the same auction, Salvador Dalí's Portrait of Paul Eluard sold for £13.5m, at a stroke tripling the record auction price for a Dali set at Christie's on Wednesday, and becoming the most expensive surrealist artwork sold at any auction. Eluard may be turning in his grave. It was his wife, Gala, who Dali fell in love with and later married.

The paintings were part of a truly wondrous private collection. The sale of 60 works from it also included paintings by Modigliani, Giacometti, Chagall and Miró.

There were many gems, including a tiny 12.5 by 9.5cm Lucian Freud self-portrait that he painted in Jamaica while visiting Ian Fleming at his house, Goldeneye. It sold for £3.3m.


Mark Brown, arts correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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