Francis Bacon's painting sells for $ 84 million in a virtual auction & # 39; hybrid & # 39; surreal

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Written by Oscar Holland, CNN

A Francis Bacon triptych sold for more than $ 84 million during a virtual auction at Sotheby's in what was an encouraging, and very unusual, night for the coronavirus art market.

With a live auctioneer broadcast from London, and phone deals broadcast from New York and Hong Kong, the 1981 painter's artwork "Aeschylus' Inspired Triptych" surpassed pre-sale estimates of $ 60 million and $ 80 million.

Monday night's marathon sale marked the first time Sotheby's tested its "hybrid" auction format, which saw Sotheby's Europe president Oliver Barker receiving offers from agents around the world. world through a wall of screens. In a press release, Barker described the experience as "like being at the epicenter of a film production."

Sotheby's first

Sotheby & # 39; s first "hybrid" auction raised over $ 363 million for auction house Credit: Sotheby & # 39; s

Bidders were also able to bid online, with the 10-minute battle for Bacon's painting ending in a two-horse race between a Chinese web user and an unidentified bidder. The final price of $ 84.6 million, offered by the latter, marks the third-highest sum ever paid for the artist's work at auction, according to Sotheby's.

There were other positive signs at the evening's event, which consisted of three separate sales. Roy Lichtenstein's "White Brushstroke I" went for $ 25.4 million, while Jean-Michel Basquiat's "Untitled (Head)" fetched $ 15.2 million, a new world auction record for a paper work by the artist.

The night generated a total of $ 363.2 million for Sotheby & # 39; s, with 93% of the featured artwork finally sold. According to Gregoire Billault, head of the contemporary art department at the auction house in New York, it bodes well for the coming months.

Gallery assistants pose with Francis Bacon

Gallery assistants pose with Francis Bacon's "Triptych Inspired by Aeschylus's Oresteia" at Sotheby's Credit: fake pictures

"Tonight was a very clear demonstration that, even in very difficult times, if you get the right (artwork) at the right prices, the market is there," he said by phone shortly after the sale, admitting that organizing The auction in the current climate had been "a risk".

"It will definitely influence what we will do in the future," he added. "I don't know if we are going to repeat (this exact format), but we know that it is possible and that it works."

Difficulties persist

However, these are still tough times for an industry that has been severely hampered by the inability to make live sales. With worldwide blockades forcing auction houses to cancel and postpone events, Sotheby's has already suspended and fired staff amid a collapse in revenue.

Despite efforts to drive digital offerings in recent months, the top end of the art market still relies heavily on live sales and in-person visits. The gains from online-only auctions represent a relative pocket change for big houses: Just $ 80 million of the total $ 4.8 billion generated by Sotheby & # 39; s in 2019 came via the web.

How do art auctions really work?

The auction house, however, has made efforts to make up for the lack of physical events. Its "contemporary" sale set a new online record in April when it generated more than $ 6.4 million through works by artists such as Andy Warhol and Damien Hirst. The $ 1.3 million paid for George Condo's "Antipodal Gathering" may have represented only a fraction of the sums seen Monday night, but it was the most Sotheby's has raised for a work of art through online deals.
Sotheby's first

Sotheby's first "hybid" sale in action Credit: Sotheby & # 39; s

But while the apparent success of this "hybrid" auction will undoubtedly be a relief, doubts remain about the appetite for front-line art amid a global economic downturn. Also, Bacon's painting was shipped long before the pandemic took over the West, meaning potential buyers were able to get a close-up look at the artwork in Hong Kong and London before the sale.

It remains to be seen whether prospective sellers will still want to put multi-million dollar artwork up for sale in the current climate, or whether buyers will spend on high-value items that they cannot inspect in person.

Nonetheless, Billault played an optimistic chord and said that Sotheby's had still been able to "send amazing works during the Covid period".

"We have sent a signal to the art market after all these difficult times, with the fairs canceled and the museums closed," he said, adding: "It is a vote of confidence for both sellers and buyers."

Top image: "Triptych inspired by Aeschylus' Oresteia", 1981, by Francis Bacon

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