May 17, 2018
A Francis Bacon portrait of his lover George Dyer sold for $49.8 million at Christie’s on Thursday night.
Francis Bacon, Study for Portrait, 1977. Courtesy of Christie's.

Francis Bacon, Study for Portrait, 1977. Courtesy of Christie's.

Bacon’s 1977 painting Study for Portrait, which was created after his lover and muse George Dyer’s death, sold for $44 million, or $49.8 million with fees, at Christie’s on Thursday evening, topping the night’s results. Auctioneer Jussi Pylkkanen chandelier bid up to $30 million (the pre-sale estimate of the work), when the dealer Larry Gagosian jumped in with a single bid. Gagosian bowed out with a shake of the head when the price got to $31.5 million, prompting a protracted bidding war across the saleroom between Ana Maria Celis, a vice president in the post-war and contemporary art department and Renato Pennisi, director and senior specialist of Christie’s Italy.

They went up by increments of $500,000. After passing the threshold of $40 million, each gave the flat-hand signal for “hold” to implore auctioneer Jussi Pylkkanen to wait just a few more seconds before dropping the gavel (usually a sign that they don’t have a willing bidder). In this case, their clients each went a little further. Celis went to $41 million, Pennisi went to $41.5 million, and then after a long pause Celis came back with $42 million. Then Pennisi went to $43 million and came back with $43.5 million. That that might have secured it, but after an even longer pause Pennisi went up one more to $44 million, and it hammered there. The $49.8 million price tag, after fees, made it the highest price for a contemporary artwork recorded this week.