Francis Bacon's “Three Studies of Lucian Freud” became the most expensive work of art at auction when it sold for $142.4 million at Christie's in New York on Tuesday night.
Its triumph was quickly followed by another when Jeff Koons' sculpture “Balloon Dog” sold for $58.4 million, an auction record for a living artist.
Christie's had estimated the 1969 Bacon triptych — three canvases depicting artist Lucian Freud — at more than $85 million.
A six-minute bidding war had more than six hopefuls, including two Asian bidders, chasing the work, The winner was a telephone client of Lock Kresler, Christie's head of private sales based in London.
The previous record for art sold at auction was Edvard Munch's “The Scream,” which went for $119.9 million in May 2012 at Sotheby's in New York.
Koons's 10-foot-tall stainless-steel structure was consigned by newsprint magnate Peter Brant. Christie's, which estimated it at $35 million to $55 million, guaranteed “Balloon Dog” would sell for an undisclosed minimum price, financed through third parties.
The price smashed Koons' previous record of $33.7 million and the record for the most expensive living artist, held by Gerhard Richter, whose 1968 painting, “Domplatz, Mailand,” sold for $37.1 million at Sotheby's in May.
The Bacon work came early during Christie's postwar and contemporary art auction, which has a pre-sale estimated tally of about $500 million. It was initially placed as lot 32 in the catalog. Today the auction house alerted clients by e-mail that it was moved to lot 8A, preceding other multimillion-dollar works by Rothko, Warhol and Richter.
“People have their pockets full,” said Beverly Schreiber Jacoby, valuation specialist and president of New York-based BSJ Fine Art. “If you move it up in the sale it means you have a greater pool of potential buyers and it mitigates the risk of the guarantor.”
Positioning the Bacon as lot 8A also might have been aimed at attracting Asian bidding.
“Eight is a lucky number in China,” said Eli Klein, whose Manhattan gallery specializes in contemporary Chinese art. “It's not going to make or break a deal, but it's preferable to Chinese collectors. If they have a chance to buy edition No. 8, they would.”
Underlining the high stakes, Christie's also delayed the start of the auction by 15 minutes so “that potential buyers are informed and ready to participate in bidding as planned,” according to the e-mail.
Bacon's previous auction record of $86.3 million was set for a much more somber triptych in May of 2008, the last heady auction before the collapse of Lehman Brothers. Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich bought the 1976 work.
A third party provided Christie's with a guarantee for “Three Studies,” an undisclosed sum that ensures the piece sells.