Mystery surrounds identity of owner of world’s most expensive painting

Work acquired by anonymous telephone bidder after fierce competition for piece

Mystery surrounds the identity of the new owner of the most valuable work of art sold at auction – a painting by Dublin-born artist Francis Bacon.

Christie's sold Three Studies of Lucian Freud for $142.4 million (€105.3 million) in New York on Tuesday night to an anonymous telephone bidder after fierce bidding during an auction of post-war and contemporary art.

The price easily beat the previous world record for a painting at auction – the $119.9 million (€90.6 million) paid for one of four versions of The Scream by Norwegian artist Edvard Munch at Sotheby's, New York, in May last year.

Three Studies of Lucian Freud is, like many of Bacon's most famous paintings, a triptych – a painting on three panels designed to be hung together. Each panel is framed separately.


There was applause in the Manhattan saleroom when the hammer came down at $127 million. The buyer’s premium charged by the auctioneer took the final price up to $142.4 million.

James O’Halloran, managing director of Dublin fine art auctioneers Adam’s, has described the price paid as a “stunning result which for mere mortals is hard to fathom. The contemporary art market is a bubble which centres around New York, a few artists, top end dealers, a couple of auction houses and some billionaires.”

Bacon was born in Lower Baggot Street, Dublin, in 1909 and grew up in Co Kildare in Kilcullen and Straffan; he also spent time with his grandparents in Abbeyleix, Co Laois.

He moved to England as a young man and became one of London's most famous artists in the 1960s. He died in 1992. His South Kensington studio was later donated to Dublin's Hugh Lane Gallery, where it has been reconstructed.

Yesterday, the gallery had "more visitors than average" and announced a temporary display of material drawn from Bacon's archive and studio, including a photograph of Lucian Freud which the artist used to make the painting.

‘Irish billionaire’

Private collectors of Bacon's paintings are thought to include Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich, American hedge-fund billionaire Steve Cohen; Sheikha Al Mayassa, daughter of the Emir of Qatar, and an unnamed "Irish billionaire", believed to have bought one at a 2008 London auction for £17 million.

The previous highest price for a Bacon work was set in May 2008, when Sotheby's sold his Triptych, 1976 for $86.3 million (€55.6 million).

Christie’s said Tuesday’s sale achieved more than $691 million (€511 million), the highest total for an auction sale in art market history.

Michael Parsons

Michael Parsons

Michael Parsons is a contributor to The Irish Times writing about fine art and antiques