Francis Bacon’s “Pope” painting stars in Phillips’ record US9 million sale | Auctions News | THE VALUE

Francis Bacon’s “Pope” painting stars in Phillips’ record US$139 million sale | Auctions News | THE VALUE

Phillips’ New York delivered stellar results in their 20th Century and Contemporary Art Evening Sale on 17 November. 

Amongst 46 lots offered, 44 were sold and achieved a sale total of US$139.1 million dollars. It became the highest ever amount for a sale in the international auction house’s history.

British figurative artist, Bacon’s Pope with Owls painting was the sale’s most expensive lot. It was hammered at US$33 million dollars. 

Alongside Bacon, Joan Mitchell and Basquiat’s paintings were the second and third most expensive lots both were sold for more than US$8 million dollars.

Lot 16 | Francis Bacon | Pope with Owls, Oil on canvas

Created in circa 1958

145.4 x 109.2 cm


  • Nicolas Brusilowski (acquired directly from the artist in Tangier in 1959)
  • Private Collection, USA
  • Lynn Epstein (acquired by April 1976)
  • Brook Street Gallery, London (acquired by April 1977)
  • Private Collection, Switzerland
  • Thomas Ammann Fine Art, Zurich
  • Acquired from the above by the present owner in 1986

Estimate: US$35,000,000 – 45,000,000

Hammer Price: US$33,000,000

Sold: US$33,000,000

Bacon’s Pope with Owls painting was hammered at US$33 million dollars

Jean-Paul Engelen with the winning bid

The sale’s most expensive lot was Bacon’s Pope with Owls painting. 

Auctioneer, Henry Highley, started the bidding at US$24 million dollars. After five bids, the hammer was dropped at US$33 million dollars. Since the painting had a third party guarantee, the final amount was adjusted  resulting in a special situation where the hammer and sale prices (with buyer’s premium) are the same. 

The winning bid was by Worldwide Co-Head of 20th Century and Contemporary Art, Jean-Paul Engelen, for his client with paddle number 1009.

At the press conference after the auction, Engelen referred to Pope with Owls as an important Bacon painting, and was disappointed that it did not receive enough attention.

In 1986, Pope with Owls was bought by the seller from a gallery, and was kept for 35 years until now. It is reported that the seller is Richard Hedreen, a Seattle-based real estate developer, who was selected as one of the world’s top 200 art collectors. His collection ranges from Classical Masters to Modern and Contemporary Art including works by Picasso and De Kooning.

Richard Hedreen

Velazquez’s portrait of Pope Innocent X (circa 1650)

Forming part of Francis Bacon’s Papal portrait series which spanned over 20 years, Pope with Owls portrayed one of the most recognisable subjects in his oeuvre.

Created in 1958, Bacon’s painting was inspired by the portrait of Pope Innocent X by Velazquez. The British painter was interested in the Spanish Master’s rendering of flesh and psychological deconstruction between 1949 and 1971. In so doing, Bacon’s version gained art historical signifance. 

Bacon conveys the viscerality of flesh through the immediate gestures of his loaded brush. Discrete blotches of yellow, blue, white, and lilac combine to form a haunting figure of grit and grimace. 

Bacon (left) and Lacey (right)

The circle over the right eye undoubtedly echoes the screaming nurse from the Odessa Steps sequence in Eisenstein’s The Battleship Potemkin  a motif that Bacon incorporated into his Papal series since 1949. But it is the large loop depicting an ear and the grimaced teeth that most closely recall the photographs of Bacon’s lover at the time, Peter Lacey. The greenish-yellow smudge across the other eye socket and the smear of dark purple on the protagonist’s nose reflect the violence of their ill-fated relationship.

Bacon’s visits to Morocco in the late 1950s marked an important turning point in both his art and his life, which is shown in this Popes with Owls painting. The British painter began going to Tangier to visit his long-term lover Peter Lacy – a man with whom he had a violent relationship that haunted his output throughout the 1950s. A former fighter pilot who served in the Battle of Britain, Lacy was a troubled man prone to rage and sadistic violence. Their rapport provided the artist with one of his most important character studies.

Lot 8 | Joan Mitchell | Untitled, Oil on canvas

Created in 1992

279.4 x 200 cm


  • Estate of the Artist
  • Robert Miller Gallery, New York (acquired in 1993)
  • Acquired from the above by the present owner

Estimate: US$4,000,000 – 6,000,000

Hammer Price: US$10,000,000

Sold: US$11,870,000

The sale’s second most expensive and enthusiastically bid lot was Mitchell’s Untitled painting.

The bidding started at US$2.8 million dollars. After more than 25 bids, the hammer was dropped at US$10 million dollars – 2.5 times of its low estimate. The winning bid was by Senior Specialist of 20th Century and Contemporary Art, Melyora de Koning, for her client with paddle number 1040. In the end, Mitchell’s painting was sold at US$11.8 million dollars with buyer’s premium.

Joan Mitchell (1925-1992) was one of the most important members of American artistic movement, Abstract Expressionism, and one of its few female artists to achieve international acclaim. Mitchell’s impressive career spanned more than 40 years and saw her work in a diverse range of mediums  including oil on canvas, water colour and pastel on paper.

Joan Mitchell in her Vetheuil studio, 1983

Mitchell moved to a studio in the French town of Vetheuil in 1967. Inspired by the French countryside and Impressionist Masters such as van Gogh, Monet and Cezanne, she incorporated themes of nature and landscape in her paintings.

In this Untitled painting, the sweeping, rich blue vertical slashes at center alert to the elongated tree forms she had explored through the early 1990s, with the spherical clusters of horizontal brushstrokes at right recalling her bundles of sunflowers.


Lot 27 | Jean-Michel Basquiat | Untitled (The Door), Acrylic, oil and Xerox collage on wooden door

Created in 1984

207 x 84.5 cm


  • Raymond and Patsy Nasher, Dallas (acquired directly from the artist in 1985; titled as Rubber)
  • Stellan Holm, New York
  • Private Collection
  • Phillips de Pury & Company, New York, May 13 2010, Lot 116
  • Acquired at the above sale by the present owner

Estimate: US$6,000,000 – 8,000,000

Hammer Price: US$7,700,000

Sold: US$8,549,500

The sale’s third most expensive lot was Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Untitled (The Door) work. 

The bidding started at US$4.8 million dollars. After more than 20 bids, the hammer was dropped at US$7.7 million dollars nearly US$2 million dollars more than its low estimate. Head of 20th Century and Contemporary Art Europe, Olivia Thornton, won the highest bid for her client with paddle number 1089. In the end, the painting was sold at US$8.5 million dollars with buyer’s premium. 

Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988) was one of the most famous American artists of the 20th century. Basquiat is best known for his artwork called Untitled (1982), depicting a skull. It sold at Sotheby’s New York for a record US$110.5 million dollars in 2017, and became the highest price ever paid at auction for an American artist. 

Drawing from his Afro-Caribbean roots, Basquiat challenged Western histories by depicting influential personalities of the African diaspora as heroes and saints. These figures included musicians and athletes, such as saxophonist Charlie Parker, as well as boxers Joe Louis and Muhammad Ali.  

Basquiat posing with the present work, Untitled (The Door)

Created in 1984, The Door eptiomises Basquiat’s gestural, painterly prowess with his ability to fuse incoherent themes. Showcasing his distinctive iconography including the crown, textual devices, animal imagery and popular culture references, this painting embodies the artist’s biographical symbolism whilst also alluding to his collaborations with Warhol from 1984 to 1985. Part painting and sculptural object, 1984 also marked the year when he conceived some of his most iconic works, such as Flexible, Private Collection; Gold Griot, The Broad Museum, Los Angeles; and Grillo, Fondation Louis Vuitton, Paris.

This wooden panel has three sections; each divided by blue squares. The most central element is the human figure, which Basquiat used as an iconographic device to merge art history, pop culture and the Black experience. Each head is accentuated by big yellow crowns, which first appeared in his homage to Picasso, entitiled Red Kings (1981). 

Other highlight lots: 

Lot 9 │ Georgia O’Keefe | Crab’s Claw Ginger Hawaii

Created in 1939

48.3 x 40.6 cm


  • The Dole Pineapple Company, New York (commissioned from the artist in 1939), (with Harold Diamond, New York, 1976)
  • Mr. and Mrs. N. Rosenwald, New York, by 1976 (with Donald Morris Gallery, Birmingham, 1976)
  • Private Collection, Toledo, 1976 (with Gerald Peters Gallery, Santa Fe, 1987)
  • Thurston Twigg-Smith, Sun Valley and Honolulu (acquired from the above, 1987)
  • Sharon Twigg-Smith (by descent from the above, 2016)
  • Gift from the above to the present owner

Estimate: US$4,000,000 – 6,000,000

Hammer Price: US$6,400,000

Sold: US$7,748,000

Lot 33 │ Andy Warhol The Last Supper/Be a Somebody with a Body, Acrylic and silkscreen ink on canvas

Created in 1986

300 x 587.1 cm


  • The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, New York
  • The Brant Foundation, Greenwich
  • Acquired from the above by the present owner

Estimate: US$6,000,000 – 8,000,000

Hammer Price: US$5,600,000

Sold: US$6,806,000

Lot 11 │ Cecily Brown Untitled, Oil on canvas

Created in 2007

226.1 x 216.2 cm


  • Gagosian Gallery, New York
  • Private Collection
  • Acquired from the above by the present owner

Estimate: US$3,500,000 – 4,500,000

Hammer Price: US$5,050,000

Sold: US$6,140,500

Lot 29 │ Gerhard Richter Weiss (White), Oil on canvas

Created in 1988

112.1 x 101.9 cm

Provenance (Amended by The Value):

  • Marian Goodman Gallery, New York
  • Private Collection, Florida
  • Phillips, London, October 16 2013, Lot 10 (Sold at £2.4 million)
  • Acquired at the above sale by the present owner

Estimate: US$4,000,000 – 6,000,000

Hammer Price: US$4,700,000

Sold: US$5,717,000

Lot 18 │ Pierre Bonnard Panier de fruit, Oil on canvas

Created in circa 1946

60.3 x 47.6 cm


  • Henri Matisse (acquired directly from the artist)
  • Pierre Matisse Gallery, New York (acquired from the above in 1946)
  • The Reader’s Digest, Pleasantville (acquired from the above in 1948)
  • The Reader’s Digest Collection, Sotheby’s, New York, November 16, 1998, Lot 33
  • Private Collection (acquired at the above sale)
  • Thence by descent to the present owner

Estimate: US$2,000,000 – 3,000,000

Hammer Price: US$4,100,000

Sold: US$4,991,000

Auction Summary:

Auction House: Phillips New York

Sale: 20th Century and Contemporary Art Evening Sale

Date: 17 November 2021

Number of lots: 46

Sold: 44

Unsold: 2

Sale Rate: 95.6{99d7ae7a5c00217be62b3db137681dcc1ccd464bfc98e9018458a9e2362afbc0}

Sale Total: US$139,165,950