WASHINGTON (TIP): Economic crisis? Financial slowdown? What are you talking about? Demonstrating that the rich are seldom constrained by crises faced by the plebs, the auction house Christie’s racked up a record $691.5 million on Tuesday for 69 works of art, many of which fetched highest ever prices. That included a staggering $142.4 million for a 1969 triptych by British artist Francis Bacon, of whom Margaret Thatcher once derisively said ”that man who paints those dreadful pictures.” It is a new record for a work by any artist, comfortably beating the May 2012 milestone when Edvard Munch’s pastel of “The Scream” sold at Sotheby’s for $119.9 million. Hollywood moguls, New York real estate tycoons, hedge fund managers, and other masters of the universe jostled in Christie’s Rockefeller Center showroom in Manhattan for a piece of the action, if not the works, oblivious to the workaday crowd outside. Christie’s had expected $500 million for the much-hyped art stash, but amid frenetic bidding by folks in designer suits and fur coats, the baseline was overrun effortlessly even though six of the works remained unsold.
The highpoint of the auction came when Bacon’s triptych, a three-panel portrait of the artist’s friendturned- artistic-foil Lucian Freud sitting, cross-legged, in a wicker chair against a taxicab-yellow background, was wheeled out. Christie’s had estimated a $85 million payola for the work, but apparently it did not contend with frenzy it generated on account of its unique background by an unapologetically gay artist who began life as a interior decorator and a furniture designer. A 1933 biography of Bacon is titled “The Gilded Gutter Life of Francis Bacon.” The story goes that Bacon painted the triptych in 1969 and was irritated to learn that each one had been sold separately when he wanted them kept together. The panels were reunited many years later after much struggle by an Italian magnate who then sold it to an anonymous American buyer who in turn put it up for auction. On Tuesday it was snapped up by another faceless buyer fronted by a New York art dealer, although several well known collectors who were physically present bid up to $100 million during the 10 electrifying minutes it was centerstage. The crowd burst into applause when New York dealer Bill Acquavella, bidding by telephone on behalf of an unnamed client, placed the winning bid of $127 million, which added up to $142.4 million with Christie’s commission.