Ripping yarns: Francis Bacon's discarded studio rubbish makes 'blue chip' prices (from the Tom Flynn archive)

Bacon in a dumpster: I smell a rat


Twenty years of working in and around the art market bestows a certain scepticism which occasionally comes in handy.

Now that the dust has settled (perhaps the sort of dust that clings to your clothing after rifling through a rubbish skip to salvage someone else's personal belongings) I can't dispel a lingering nausea over this week's £1m sale of Francis Bacon's diaries, cheque stubs and cancelled canvases.

For the record, the back story was that an electrician who happened to be working at Bacon's South Kensington home in 1978, 'rescued' the material from the rubbish skip to which, he claims, Bacon was about to consign it. According to the online account offered by The Daily Mail, the electrician, Mac Robertson, 75, "persuaded the artist to let him keep some of the junk." Robertson goes on to say, "I was in the right place at the right time. I had no idea that the bits and bobs Bacon was about to throw away might one day be worth a fortune." A £1 million fortune, to be precise.

Why then, one is tempted to ask, did Robertson want the stuff - old cheque stubs, diaries, discarded photographs? Perhaps Bacon's fame (celebrity was not the concept in 1978 that it is today) was enough to make his daily rubbish seem 'interesting' or, dare one say it, potentially valuable?

But more to the point, looking at the many surviving photographs of Bacon's studio, with its great Pyrenean slopes of sedimented detritus, it's very hard to imagine the artist discarding anything, let alone numerous contact sheets of Muybridge-like black and white photographs (left), which were all grist to his mill.

Writing on, Ian Charles Stewart concludes of this sale that "the name of an artist has turned rubbish into Art." But while most people did cast a jaundiced eye over much of the 'rubbish' that appeared at the Ewbank auction, I was not alone in finding the last two lots - the dog painting and the study for a portrait - just too accomplished, too characteristically Bacon to imagine him throwing them into a dumpster. And I felt this before the market spoke.

If it sounds as though I'm casting doubt on the accepted story of how these things came to auction, then yep, I guess I am. Something about this whole affair has the nasty whiff of the recyclable black bin-liner.

A large number of the original series of Damien Hirst's famous spot prints have already been disowned by the artist - effectively 'cancelled' - on account of damage sustained to them while en route to market after printing. But already these have gained added commmercial lustre purely because Hirst has disowned them. A black market in these prints is now thriving. However hard he may try, Hirst cannot control the market, not even the market for seemingly insignificant material tenuously connected to him, such is his celebrity. Quite how that affects Hirst's view of what passes through his hands every day and of the mountains of 'stuff' that will outlive him is anyone's guess, although he's had the prescience to plan and realise a grandiose museum to his own myth while he's still alive. But once he's gone, he's gone, and that will be someone else's problem.

There's been a lot of talk about artist's 'rights' and how these ought to be held as sacrosanct. By sending their work out into the public domain, artists and writers relinquish a certain amount of control over their creations, but if an artist decides to obliterate something - either with a Stanley knife or by throwing it into a rubbish skip - it is hard to imagine them then being persuaded to give it to someone. You don't need to read Marcel Mauss to know that a gift is an endorsement of value in almost any culture.

All this had me thinking back to Michael Landy's memorable ArtAngel work entitled Break Down of 2001 (right), in which Landy pulverised all his worldly possessions, including his Saab 9000 motor car, a Tinguely drawing and a Gary Hume canvas.

Now that's one way to ensure your cheque stubs never make it to market.

Ripping yarns - Francis Bacon's obliterated canvases outstrip estimates


It was dismissed by some observers as detritus salvaged from the floor of the artist’s studio. But not every studio floor was quite like Francis Bacon’s.

Earlier this evening around 80 people gathered at Ewbank’s auction rooms in Surrey to contest the so-called Robertson Collection – 45 lots of letters, diaries, photographs, ephemera and a few small oil paintings that survived from the studio of the late Francis Bacon.

The contrast between the louche bohemia of Soho’s Colony Club – Bacon’s natural habitat when alive – and the corrugated shed just off the A3 where these mementoes were dispersed this evening could not have been more marked. But then Bacon’s life was always a heady mix of high and low, centre and periphery.

Happily for auctioneer Chris Ewbank, the Robertson auction was a sale of highs rather than lows. It is never easy to gauge how these events will shake down before the auctioneer mounts the rostrum. Mr Ewbank had laid on extra telephones and had drafted in a few local friends to handle the proxy bidding. He’d also hooked up a live internet connection for those who wanted to watch and bid remotely. All this preparation paid off handsomely and at times he was overwhelmed by bidders from the web, several phones, and plenty of activity in the room.

If Bacon wasn’t happy with a portrait, he had an emphatic way of dealing with it – he took a razor blade and quite literally de-faced it, leaving a gaping hole in the canvas. Four such obliterated works were offered this evening, each estimated at £1500-£2500. There had been skepticism as to whether these bizarre relics should ever have been offered for sale, having been deemed by their creator to be unfit for consumption, but they exerted a strange mystique over bidders. The first made £7000, the second £40,000, and the last two £30,000 apiece, three going to the same telephone bidder.

The temperature rose markedly towards the end of the sale when Study for a dog at rest (right) came under the hammer with an estimate of £2000-£3000.

After a glacially slow battle of the phones, an agent bidding on behalf of a German collector saw off all the competition in the room with a bid of £260,000.

However, the highlight of the evening was the final lot of the sale – a small canvas entitled Study for a Portrait –(left) displaying all the bravura spontaneity one associates with Bacon’s more finished works. Although nominally estimated at just £12,000-18,000, it triggered determined bidding from the phones and the room before selling to a telephone buyer for £400,000.

It was clear that the serious art trade was present at the Woking sale, albeit only in the disembodied form of the telephone bid, but those in the room gave them a run for their money.

Among the disappointed underbidders on the more expensive of the paintings was Mayfair dealer Jean-David Malat, who afterwards told me, “It was slightly out of my league.” But evidently only slightly. Having pushed prices up from his seat in the room, he left empty-handed.

More fortunate, albeit in a more affordable price bracket, was Anita Bacon (no relation), a Sussex-based private collector who secured one of Bacon’s diaries. Crucially, one entry bluntly recorded the death of the artist’s lover George Dyer on 24th October 1971 – “George Died in Paris.” Mrs Bacon paid £2000 (estimate £300-500) for this, while a few minutes later she secured a signed cheque made out to the artist’s mother dated 15th December 1968, which coincidentally also happens to be Anita Bacon’s birthday. “I was absolutely delighted to get something personal,” Mrs Bacon told me after the sale.

Another punter leaving empty-handed was Simon Smith, a fresh-faced young London-based financial trader, who decided to try and funnel some of his recent City bonus into his first art investment. “I set myself a limit of £10,000 to secure something by Francis Bacon,” said Mr Smith philosophically, “but it was not to be.”

The sale’s other notable highpoint was when a series of black and white photographic contact sheets by an anonymous New York photographer, c.1975, came under the hammer. These four lots had been forecast at around £300-1000 apiece, but in the event realised £5,800, £5,500, £2,900, and £9,200 respectively. They were all secured by London photography dealer Michael Hoppen bidding in the room. Asked afterwards whether he knew, and could reveal, the identity of the photographer, Mr Hoppen declined to comment.

When a telephone bidder offers an unsolicited jump from £4,500 to £7,000 – a ‘napalm bid’ in an attempt to see of the competition – it is clear that buyers are in bullish mood. This, and the final sale total of £965,490 against a low-end estimate of £30,000 offered confirmation, if any were needed, that Bacon’s star continues to rise, even for canvases the artist decimated with a Stanley knife.

“Champagne for my real friends, real pain for my sham friends,” Bacon once quipped. The champagne was flowing in Chris Ewbank's saleroom this evening, but whether his real friends would have consigned his studio shavings to the auction block remains a moot point.

(All prices quoted are hammer and subject to 17.5% buyer's premium)

Watch Chris Ewbank selling the final lot of the sale here:

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