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The Royal Academy’s new Francis Bacon exhibition in London is the talk of the town. Titled “Man and Beast,” the show homes in on the Modernist painter’s relationship with animals—a refreshing curatorial framework for an artist so oft associated with the human figure.
Less than a decade ago, Bacon’s market was soaring—but the artist has recently seen a more mellow performance at auction. The R.A. show, featuring raw, distorted imagery of bullfights and chimeric abstractions that reveal how interchangeable humans and animals really are, has reignited discussion about his work, while curators’ decision to issue a trigger warning has sparked some controversy in the press.
The Irish-born Modernist clearly still has the capacity to provoke strong feelings—so we delved into Artnet’s Price Database to find out whether his market commands similar conviction.
Auction record: $142.4 million at Christie’s New York in November 2013
Bacon’s Performance in 2021
Lots sold: 77
Bought in: 15
Sell-through rate: 84 percent
Average sale price: $537,299
Mean estimate: $539,380
Total sales: $41.4 million
Top painting price: $33 million
Lowest painting price: $6.9 million
Lowest overall price: $529 (for an offset lithograph poster for a 1985 show at Marlborough Gallery)
- Crash Landing. Bacon’s secondary market activity ramped up in 2007 and 2008—and then crashed, along with the rest of the art market, in 2009. The artist’s total sales plummeted 99 percent that year, from $228.2 million to a paltry $2.6 million. In the succeeding four years, the art market at large gradually recovered from the Great Recession, and Bacon’s sales hit their apex in 2014, totaling $306 million.
- Pandemic Overconfidence. Following the 2014 peak, Bacon continued to perform solidly at auction, with sales fluctuating largely based on supply. Bucking mid-pandemic expectations, Bacon’s market did well in 2020, buoyed by the sale of his prime triptych Inspired by the Oresteia of Aeschylus (1981). The work, which fetched $84.6 million, was the year’s most expensive at auction, though it still lagged far behind his $142.4 million record. It was only revealed two months ago, by Artnet’s Katya Kazakina, that the buyer was Sotheby’s owner Patrick Drahi.
- Dwindling Interest. In 2021, just 3,587 users searched Artnet’s Price Database for Bacon, with the most interest concentrated in the fall, around the time of New York’s marquee sales. Engagement was far lower than that for the last two artists considered in this column: René Magritte saw 6,288 users searching, and Yayoi Kusama got 17,778.
- Disappointing Performance. Bacon’s market had a less-than-stellar performance in 2021. While other artists’ markets were recovering from lockdown, Bacon’s total sales dropped 61 percent from 2020, even though the number of works offered remained consistent. Bacon’s top price at auction last year—$33 million for a fresh-to-market “Pope” work from 1958 at Phillips—fell $2 million short of its low estimate. All told, his market is down a staggering 87 percent from its 2014 peak.
- What’s in the Woodwork? Bacon has seen supply spike when the wider market is flush (more than 10 paintings were offered annually during the market’s previous peaks in 2007–8 and 2014–5). But it remains to be seen whether the current boom will coax more valuable paintings out of the woodwork—and how they will be received.
The Bottom Line
Bacon’s slumping auction performance over the past five years suggests that market tastes may have moved on from the painter’s macho, ghoulish figurative work. One could argue that the numbers reflect the lack of supply of top-tier trophy lots—33 paintings were offered over the past five years at a 90 percent sell-through rate, compared to an 80 percent sell-through rate across his entire market—but that doesn’t explain away the disappointing result for a fresh-to-market “Pope” last year.
“Everyone wants to write an obituary for Modernist and Impressionist art,” Phillips’s Robert Manley said following the “Pope” sale, but insisted tastes had not “changed” but rather “expanded.” The Royal Academy’s Bacon show might introduce the artist to new audiences (and encourage more painting consignments). But with the lurking possibility that supply may have satisfied demand, we wouldn’t retire the funeral blacks just yet.
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