The power of underestimation

One knows that when something is meant to be, it will find a way and swim to the surface. Just like two lost lovers, endured through agony and anticipation. At last reunited, becoming one and taking the form of Figure.

The story unfolds in rainy and windy St Ives, in the winter of 1959, where Bacon explored a different chromatic palette in his works, inclining towards pretty pinks and bold oranges. Just two doors from his new studio, fellow painter Tony O’Malley was working. One January night, after a heated argument with his then partner, Bacon decided to leave everything and storm out, in a hurry he left all his works and never looked back. Somehow, Figure came to O’Malley’s procession and as he was short in materials, he cut Figure in half and painted two landscapes on the back.

Many summers came and went and Figure was bathed in darkness, hidden from everyone’s awareness, just like a well-kept secret. It wasn’t until 2007, when both landscapes were brought to attention and the secret was revealed. For the very first time the public was able to see the “lost” painting at “Francis Bacon in St Ives” exhibition, at Tate St Ives (I guess they’re not really into creative exhibition titles…).

With my hand covering my mouth from agony, I was leafing through Christie’s catalogue for their upcoming “British and Irish Art” auction. Lot 66 presents O’Malley’s two landscapes on the recto and Bacon’s Figure on the verso (wouldn’t Bacon be on recto, as this is the lead auctioned work; and I must say painted firstly and O’Malley on the verso, as the two landscapes shape Figure?). Estimated price £20,000 – £30,000 GBP ($28,300 – $42,450 USD).

Is this the estimated price for the three paintings, together? Bargain. Curiously, I sat and explored O’Malley auctioned records, that vary between $5-10 thousands USD. While Bacon is the artist that really, brings the bacon. In 2013 Christie’s New York made headlines for fetching the world’s most expensive artwork (sold at auction), bringing in $142.4 million.

Today’s art market is very promising, with the world’s most expensive record being re-introduced in 2015 and (still) many contemporary artists are breaking records. A very good example is Adrian Ghenie, that jumped to $4,511,506 USD just last month (February 10, 2016) he fetched double the amount of his previous record in 2014 at $2,439,712 USD (ok, the size for the record price was double, but still he is an artist working on the same aesthetics for about 10 years and he is only 38 years old).

I also understand that an unfinished painting by Bacon hasn’t been auctioned before, but the estimated price is underestimated. Let’s keep in mind that Bacon did not do preparatory sketches, or drawings. It was always him attacking the canvas and working his way through. Even a simple work dating from 1934 (this is when he started painting and experimenting with the subject of Crucifixion) fetched for $169,484 USD in 2009. Having a work on panel and painted in oils does increase the value of a work.

Why would Christie’s, the crème de la crème of the secondary market underestimate this fascinating and incredibly rich in history, but yet unfinished painting? Initially, I thought it was a mistake, but as the days went by and the price wouldn’t adjust, I was convinced there must be a reason.

Approaching (high-brow) art as an accessible luxury good to young collectors is something that auction houses have been trying to accomplish, since the online auctions were introduced. Auction houses aim to attract younger bidders that are interested to build a collection.

Presenting art by modern masters as accessible is a way to attract attention. By attracting more bidders, especially younger ones, Christie’s is broadening their market. This will increase the bidding competition and the work(s) will reach a new high and shockingly escalating effect to the value. This will also receive press coverage, which will attract more attention and will become valuable press for Christie’s reputation.

On the other hand, underestimating the value of a panting will question Christie’s credibility. How trustworthy are they? How do they estimating the value of a work? Do they contribute to the art market as an economic bubble?

My prediction is that work will fetch between $220,000-370,000 USD. Cannot wait to see how far this will evolve on March 17.


17 March 2016 Christie's Bacon Dimitria Markou 17 March 2016 Christie's Bacon O'Malley Dimitria Markou

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