Phillips announces tonight that it will offer Francis Bacon’s ‘Pope with Owls’ ($35 – 45 million) from 1958 during its New York Evening Sale of 20th Century & Contemporary Art. The work has been in same private American collection for nearly four decades though it was purchased from legendary Swiss dealer Thomas Ammann.
“In the late 1950s, Bacon spent a great deal of time in Tangiers, an exotic escape from conservative London for artists, writers and adventurers,” Jean-Paul Engelen, Deputy Chairman and Worldwide Co-Head of 20th Century & Contemporary Art, said. “For Bacon, it was a period of great inspiration and creativity. His longest stay in Morocco – fourteen months – was filled with incredible high and lows and it was during this time that the present Pope painting was created. An exceptional example from the artist’s most iconic series, the work elevates Bacon, rightfully placing him among the greatest names in the art historical canon.”
It’s somewhat hard to remember at this great distance but the 2005 sale at Christie’s of Bacon’s Study for Pope 1 from 1961 for $10 million was a landmark in the transformation of Bacon from a Contemporary artist to a creator of masterpieces able to lead the market and propel further sales. Two years after this sale, Henry Kravis paid $35 million for a Bacon pope painting on the private market and his status as market superstar was cemented. Eventually Bacon’s prices would run all the way to $142 million for a triptych of portraits of Lucien Freud that had been painstakingly re-united by a determined art dealer. The previous record price of a Bacon, a triptych (of course,) was paid by Roman Abramovich in 2008. Just last year, Hans Rasmus Astrup, a famed Norwegian collector, sold his triptych for $84.5 million.
The popes are rarer on the market. That’s one reason Kravitz was eager to pay well above the public market price for his in 2007. Two popes were sold publicly as recently as 2019. One made $6.6 million at Sotheby’s but the work was somewhat clouded by the artist’s expressed wish that the painting be destroyed. The other, a small but far less controversial work sold for $50.3 million.