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Bacon triptych sells for record $142.4 million at auction

Francis Bacon's painting "Three Studies of Lucian Freud" became the most expensive work of art ever sold when it fetched $142.4 million in one of the biggest auctions in history.

Bacon's 1969 triptych, never before offered at auction and carrying a presale estimate of about $85 million, easily eclipsed the $119.9 million Edvard Munch's "The Scream" achieved in May last year at Sotheby's.

The auction of 69 works of postwar and contemporary art also took in $691,583,000, including commissions, far above the estimated $480 million to $670 million. That makes it the richest auction in history, eclipsing Christie's sale of contemporary art in May, which totaled $495 million.

Cate Gillon | Getty Images News | Getty Images

The sale set yet another significant record—for a price achieved at auction by a living artist—when Jeff Koons' large sculpture "Balloon Dog (Orange)" fetched $58.4 million. The price beat the high presale estimate and smashed the previous record for a living artist of $37.1 million, set by Gerhard Richter's "Domplatz, Mailand (Cathedral Square, Milan)" in May.

Bacon's three-panel work depicts the Dublin-born painter's friend and fellow artist Lucian Freud on a chair, with a view from each side and one face-on. Christie's called it "a true masterpiece that marks Bacon and Freud's relationship" and their "creative and emotional kinship."

"Three Studies of Lucian Freud" is also one of only two existing full-length triptychs of Freud, a grandson of the founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud. The three panels were separated for 15 years in the 1970s before being reunited.

The previous record for a Bacon work was $86.3 million.

When the bidding started on Tuesday at $80 million, at least five hands shot up before a protracted bidding war in the packed New York salesroom and via telephone brought the hammer price to $127 million, before commission.

The successful bidder was the Acquavella Galleries in New York, which could have been bidding on behalf of a client.

Christie's officials said the auction and the jaw-dropping prices many works commanded were evidence of the art market's strength, especially at its top echelons.

"Our top collectors bid very, very aggressively for the best of the best," said Brett Gorvy, Christie's head of postwar and contemporary art. "I really believe we are beginning something. This is not a bubble."

Jussi Pylkkanen, president and chairman of Christie's Europe, and the auctioneer, said the sale's success was marked not only by the records but by "the broad number of clients from all over the world" who participated, including collectors from 42 nations who had registered to bid.

"In the past three to four years, the market for great modern art has become global," he told Reuters. The record sale in May "was a marker for collectors of masterpieces," he said.

Auction officials have been promoting the notion that new, deep-pocketed collectors from around the globe are driving prices for top-tier works to record levels, and Tuesday's results seemed to bear that out.

Before the sale, Gorvy said collectors from Asia, Russia and the Middle East, flush with cash, were determined to assemble world-class collections featuring trophy works.

"We are at a very, very early stage of development for this market," he said afterward. "So many collectors from so many countries are coming into this market."

Among the sale's other highlights, Andy Warhol's "Coca-Cola (3) sold for $57.3 million, Mark Rothko's No. 11 (Untitled) fetched $46.1 million and Willem de Kooning's "Untitled VIII" set an artist's record when it fetched $32.1 million.

Only six of the 69 works offered failed to sell.

The auctions continue Wednesday with Sotheby's sale of postwar and contemporary art.