Art Market

Lucian Freud’s Long-Overlooked Early Works Are Poised for Resurgence

Samuel McIlhagga
Dec 11, 2020 9:25PM

From Picasso’s early academic studies in the 1890s to David Bowie’s 1967 self-titled debut album, there are many overlooked and underappreciated corners to be found near the beginning of artists’ and musicians’ careers. The complex combination of contemporary fame, radical changes in style, and strong market demand for easily understandable aesthetic shorthands have led many a great artist to even retrospectively reject their early work. A major British artist who fits this description is the late Lucian Freud (1922–2011).

“Freud was very keen to get away from the draughtsman-like style of his early paintings,” said Brian Balfour-Oatts, director at London gallery Archeus/Post-Modern. “He thought it was holding him back. He probably promoted a bigotry against his early work because he wanted to break free of it.”

Freud even went as far as denying the authorship of the early The Man in the Black Cravat (1940). The painting was verified as Freud’s by a team of BBC journalists and art historians in 2016. However, his rejection of the work allegedly came from a long-running feud with its owner, Denis Wirth-Miller, rather than a strategic hedge to preserve market value through a restriction of supply or a principled stance on aesthetics.

Freud from the beginning

Freud’s early work dates from 1937, the year he carved Three-legged Horse, until about 1958, when he stopped using delicate sable brushes and started standing up at the easel with a hog’s hair brush. “In part under Francis Bacon’s influence, Freud adopted a more painterly approach, producing bigger and bolder brushstrokes as a result,” said Tessa Lord, a Christie’s specialist in post-war and contemporary art.

Freud’s looser style of nude oil paintings would become his public trademark as he moved away from the linear approach that had earned him a title as the “Ingres of Existentialism” in Herbert Read’s Contemporary British Art (1951). Yet Freud’s early work is still held in critical esteem by many.

“I always really loved the early paintings.…[They were] so magical and they pointed to a kind of London that you wanted to live in, that seemed bohemian,” said artist David Austen in the documentary Lucian Freud: A Self Portrait (2020). “The mythology around them was very enticing to young artists.”

Christie’s has called 2019 the “year of Lucian Freud.” The auction house lists the Royal Academy’s exhibition “Lucian Freud: The Self Portraits,” a preliminary catalogue raisonné, and The Lives of Lucian Freud: Youth 1922–1968 (the first part of William Feaver’s biography of the artist) as key moments. Also that year, Acquavella Galleries in New York staged a major exhibition of his powerful nude portraits.

Despite the recent Freud frenzy, Balfour-Oatts is skeptical about renewed critical interest in his early work bleeding into collector demand. “Looking at early Freud is a bit like looking at an Old Master,” he said. “It’s maybe something people are not ready to spend the time learning about if they’re new to the market.”

However, Tom Eddison, a director and specialist of contemporary art at Sotheby’s, thinks that value will rise with increased critical understanding. “The catalogue raisonné is due to be published in 2022 in time for the 100th anniversary of Freud’s birth,” he said. “Once everything is laid out in black and white, we’ll get a great understanding of the work, the period, the evolution of his artistic practice.”

Eddison also noted that Freud’s work has cross-category appeal, extending the potential reach of his collector base beyond enthusiasts of modern and contemporary work. “You can have someone, especially in the case of Freud with his Northern European, Netherlandish sensibility, who sits incredibly well within an Old Masters collection,” he concluded.

“Freud’s various escapades do have a bearing on the way his paintings and drawings looked in the early years,” said Feaver, who published the second part of his biography in September. “They don’t explain them, but they do illuminate them.”

Portrait of a market

During his later years, Freud generated headlines in the mainstream press for the record prices gained by his monumental nudes at auction. His 1995 oil painting Benefits Supervisor Sleeping was the most expensive work sold by a living artist on the secondary market when it fetched $33.6 million at a Christie’s auction in 2008. In 2015, Benefits Supervisor Resting (1994) set a new record for a Freud work at auction, selling for $56 million, again at Christie’s. More recently, Portrait On a White Cover (2002–03) sold for £22.4 million ($29.7 million) at Sotheby’s in 2018, securing the fourth-highest auction result for a Freud work.

These headline-grabbing prices have obscured the diverse primary and secondary markets for Freud’s early work and works on paper. On the secondary market, early paintings generally sell for less than later canvases, though there are exceptions. For instance, Sotheby’s sold Head of a Boy (1956) for $7.5 million in 2019 and Man with a Feather (1943) in 2005 for $6.7 million.

“Comparing Benefits Supervisor Sleeping’s dimensions of 151.3 by 219 centimeters to Head of a Boy at 18 by 18 centimeters makes you realize how small some of his early work is,” Eddison argued. “It’s difficult to make a direct comparison on price, but if you’re talking in financial terms, that’s a lot of money per square inch.”

Although not directly comparable to paintings, Freud’s early works on paper have recently failed to score above auction estimates: In 2018, two crayon portraits of Francis Bacon failed to bust estimates of £500,000 to £700,000 ($650,000 to $911,000). Etchings on the primary market, however, are more competitive. For instance, Matthew Marks Gallery in New York is offering Conversation (1998) for $15,000 and Archeus/Post-Modern The Egyptian Book (1994) for $22,500.

Outliers have also started coming to market, including a “cache of seven postcards” brought to the block at Christie’s in 2020, which sold for £5,250 ($7,273), and A Fish Head (1944), a watercolor attributed to Freud that failed to sell last year at Elite Auctioneers after falling short of its $3,000 to $5,000 estimate. This is partly because “the main paintings from the early years are out of circulation and are mostly with the Tate, the British Council, and the Arts Council. This sets a hard market limit,” said Feaver. “The early work belongs to devoted, now very elderly, people or it belongs to museums—so there is not much of it around.”

A coming reversal?

Eddison added that supply on the secondary market is currently comparably scarce. “His paintings have [been] auctioned, not discounting repeats, 144 times, which is an incredibly small amount for an artist of his stature compared to someone like Picasso, who’s come up for auction about 2,000 times,” he said.

The primary and secondary markets for Freud’s early work, drawings, and etchings have been structured by a number of forces. Despite the evident skill and beauty of Freud’s printmaking, his etchings have not experienced the same rise in value as his drawings and paintings. “Almost all of Lucian’s paintings are out of reach for buyers. It’s a very rarified market,” said Balfour-Oatts. “Normally, when that’s the case, prints, etchings, and drawings climb in value because that’s what people can afford to buy. But that’s not happening.”

Balfour-Oatts and Eddison agreed that Freud’s prints are currently an undervalued buyer’s market. “He’s one of the great printmakers of the 20th century. I do think [he is] undervalued compared to other printmakers,” said Eddison. Balfour-Oatts concurred: “There’s been a combination of circumstances in which the value hasn’t gone up that much. This should reverse, he’s a fantastically important artist.”

Samuel McIlhagga