Buying Francis Bacon, Andy Warhol, Cy Twombly

After the Francis Bacon triptych of fellow famous painter Lucien Freud fetched $142.4 million at auction last week, I started to think. Beyond the investment in a premium grade late 20th century art work by an A-list 20th century painter, why would a Master of the Universe, one with the oodles of cash necessary to make the last bid at that level, want to own demonic Bacons of this magnitude?

Slate magazine’s Rob Wile made the rational case for sending the truck by to transport these devilish little darlings home. He mentioned the fame of the subject of the painting, the fact that a previous Bacon set the contemporary art record in 2008 (purchased by Russian mogul Roman Abramovich), and then the three-for-the-price-of-one factor. That wasn’t all:

“Scale can also affect price, and each of the canvases in “Freud” are six feet tall. The brightness of a painting can also drive up its value, and the top half of “Freud” glows with orange and yellow. Finally, the Christie’s team juiced the sale of the work by moving it up in the auction lot at the last minute, sensing strong demand. The opening price was set at $80 million, and the first bid came in at $100 million.”

Francis Bacon triptych breaks the record.

Francis Bacon triptych breaks the record.

And at the end, almost in passing, Wile slyly mentioned that the planet has more billionaires now than ever before, 2,170. It only took a few of them to drive the price up.

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I was less surprised when an Andy Warhol went for $104.5 million the day after the Bacon sale. Pre-Bacon, I would have imagined that one of Warhol’s brighter pieces would have set the record for the artist, but post-Bacon maybe it made more sense that this Warhol was from his limited edition, double-panel Crash series, “Silver Car Crash (Double Disaster),” a grim, graphic car wreck. The Dark Side was in demand. Another Warhol from the same year, “Liz #1 (Early Colored Liz),” “only” returned $20.3 million ($18 million plus fees). Not sure, but I think I’d prefer to live with the Elizabeth Taylor.

The New York Times Carol Vogel reported:

“The Warhol, “Silver Car Crash (Double Disaster),” is one of only four double-paneled car crash paintings that Warhol created in 1963, at 35, and the last of its size left in private hands. The three others are in museums, and this one has belonged to celebrated collectors including Gunter Sachs, Charles Saatchi and Thomas Ammann. It was being sold by an unidentified European collector who had owned it for more than 20 years. There were five bidders who went as high as $80 million, according to Tobias Meyer, the evening’s auctioneer, who declined to name the winner.

As with the Bacon, I’m sure there are perfectly rational, investment-driven arguments for spending that much money on the Warhol, even though it’s very difficult to contemplate the work itself. Maybe not as hard as the Bacon, which in characteristic Bacon style, transforms the grandson of Sigmund Freud into a demon, as though Bacon was actually painting inner portrait of Lucien’s subconscious. Not to trivialize it at all, but maybe something like “Grimm”?

Bacon was something of a Lord of Misrule himself, attracted to the non-rational, the disorderly, the thrill of primal desires, at least if we believe his friend Melvyn Bragg, who wrote about him soon after his triptych commanded a large fortune:

“The last time I saw him was on the steps of the National Gallery in 1992, not long before he died. He was with a handsome young man, and both of them were wearing what shone out as unimaginably expensive new overcoats. Underneath, he would have been wearing his leather biker jacket (the leather of immaculate pedigree). He looked happy.

That sweet smile and pixie face well concealed the devils which earlier that morning would have possessed him in his studio as he strove to put his vision of the human body onto canvas with the force that held the truth. And perhaps there was a twinkle in his eye, anticipating more devils, a feast with Lucifer that evening.”

Maybe if you’re a Master of the Universe, you seek to extend your control, to rule over the domains that Bacon explored? Maybe because deep down you think that the Divine Right of Kings actually emanates from Hell, not Heaven? OK, I’ve jumped into the screenplays of several films, now, haven’t I? The guy (why am I assuming the buyer was male?) who bought “Three Studies of Lucien Freud” might just think it’s pretty funny in a dark way, and oh yeah, a good investment down the line. Or maybe he’s a formalist, drawn to that Abstract Expressionist ground and that figure that seems to be in motion.

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Cy Twombly's "Poems to the Sea" sold by DIA.

Cy Twombly’s “Poems to the Sea” sold by DIA.

Still, I can’t help thinking that this triptych wouldn’t be better off in a museum, where it could be seen and evaluated by all of us. It would be safe there, wouldn’t it? Well, maybe not. The same night the Warhols sold at Sotheby’s, DIA Art Foundation, sold off several of the works in its collection, to pay for new acquisition or perhaps to help establish a new headquarters in New York City. The work included Cy Twombly’s “Poems to the Sea,” a set of 24 drawings, delicate and informal, that DO seem to be caught between language and art. It’s pre-sale estimate was $6 million to $8 million, but the drawings brought $21.6 million.

I hope that some billionaire in Houston bought the Twombly drawings with the intention of giving them to the Menil Collection, which has a great Twombly collection of its own. Because sometimes that happens, too, the common good trumps the investment impulse. Doesn’t it?

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