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Private Parts: Three Studies of Lucian Freud by Francis Bacon

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Private Parts is a series exposing the raw, gritty, and true stories behind artworks in private collections. Every week, you’ll find the untold tales of the back stabbings, thefts, and $100 million deals that move these works to secret lairs and impregnable vaults around the world. We’ll always be crazy in love with museums and galleries, but we also believe in giving the people what they want: All the art.

This week, behold Francis Bacon’s Three Studies of Lucian Freud.

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Bacon makes everything taste better. Right?

Francis Bacon’s 1969 triple-decker portrait of his best frenemy, Lucian Freud, is the perfect storm of art auction extravagance. The portrait’s story tells a bigger one; one of the hypocrisy and bureaucratic red tape that lets hundreds of millions of tax dollars just evaporate.

Selling for a then record $142,405,000 through Christie’s in November 2013 to a mystery buyer, Lucian Freud’s receipt left many corners of the art scratching their heads and going “Huh?” Sure, by deductive reasoning, some paintings are worth more money than other paintings. But why in the hell would it be three paintings of mushy face Lou below a sky with jaundice?

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Sitting down for a portrait with Francis Bacon be like…

Lucian Freud’s swole price tag wasn’t quite a shocker, though. Christie’s valued the work at $85 million to start, so anywhere around $100 million was going to be reasonable. The reigning monetary heavyweight was Munch’s The Scream at a whopping $120 million. The odds of Lucien Freud eclipsing that figure were like a tredecillion-to-one, but not impossible.

After the auction opened, seven bidders took six minutes to figure out who was going to spend the annual budget of a small country to possess Bacon’s portrait. So, is there any way for us to figure out how this kind of thing could happen? Frankly, yeah. It’s all pretty out in the open.

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For one thing, Bacons don’t come around that often. Loser only finished about 600 works that we know of. Even then, folks generally sit on them. Whenever one pops up at the auction block, the crowd goes wild.

Then there’s the personal story behind this painting. Bacon and Freud were BFFs in postwar London. Hanging out in casinos and bars as often as each other’s home. Freud’s ex-wife, the awesomely named Lady Blackwood, claimed to have eaten dinner with a side of Bacon every night of her marriage to Lucian. That Lucian’s nose in Lucian Freud is reminiscent of Bacon’s suicidal lover George Dyer only adds to the drama that America’s plutocracy seems to love in contemporary art.

After 25-years of hanging out every day, getting hammied and talking about their love problems, Bacon stopped taking Freud’s calls. The two publicly trash talked each other’s art for the rest of their lives.

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When an auction house gets a rare painting with this kind of emotional backstory, the PR gods awaken. Leading up to the November 2013 auction, Christie’s put out press release upon press release and produced a novel sized write-up on Lucian Freud that’s better researched than most UN peace treaties.

Add to this potent mix Bacon’s color palette and Lucian Freud was predestined to be a contender. It’s an anecdotal truth within the art auction world that a painting steeped in primary colors will bend and snap for everyone’s attention. Also, unsurprisingly, hotties sell better than notties.

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No one tell him what swipe left means.

After Bacon finished the peyote-fueled wander-nightmare that was the creative process for Lucian Freud, the triptych was displayed together at a gallery in Turin, Italy before being carved up and sold to buyers in Rome, Paris, and Japan. Bacon was displeased with this turn of events, but there wasn’t anything he could do. Money talks, so it goes.

Until Francesco De Simone Niquesa, Roman lawyer to the stars, came on the scene. After trading law clerking to the likes of Sophia Loren for a quiet life as a 1% thanks to a bottled mineral water fortune, he picked up one of the Lucian Freud triptych panels. A short stroll through millionaire boredom later, and it became his life’s mission to reunite the triplets. It took 15-years (and undoubtedly an obscene amount of money), but he succeeded.

An American investor bought the triptych from Niquesa and decided to sell them through Christie’s in the good ol’ NYC.

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November 2013 passes and, $142 million later, Lucian Freud is world famous and has a brand new owner. Speculation credits Russian billionaire and Chelsea football club owner Roman Abramovich with the buy. He’s a big Bacon fan, but not the guy. Suddenly, and almost immediately after the auction, Lucian Freud is on view at the Portland Art Museum for a three month stint. The owner listed? Anonymous.

WTF America? Can’t keep track of our plutocrat collectors or British artworks anymore? That’s not the attitude that made this country great. But, luckily for everyone, the question was answered when the New York Times reported anonymous informants identifying Elaine Wynn, ex-wife of Steve Wynn of Le Rêve Elbowgate fame, as the owner.

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Houston, we have a billionaire.

As far as the divorce goes, her relationship with Steve Wynn was always rocky but not tumultuous. They’ve married and divorced each other multiple times, but they stay friends. And, more importantly, business partners. Each resides in Las Vegas to oversee the Wynn casino empire. They’re a real-life Frank and Claire Underwood to the gambling and booze world. Probably just the kind of people Bacon would have loved to hate.

Now comes the $142 million question. Why would Las Vegas, Nevada resident Elaine Wynn hole up Lucian Freud in Portland for three whole months before bringing it home to the desert?

The same reason that broke the paintings up in Italy: Money.

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It’s all about “first use.” Auction houses like Christie’s count art as inventory in a way such that sales tax doesn’t necessarily have to be collected after the hammer falls. If a painting’s shipped immediately from the auction house to a state with lax tax laws (Oregon) rather than in a tax heavy state (Nevada, New York, California), then the art’s owner saves millions on the tax differential.

In the case of Elaine Wynn, it amounts to a potential $11 million discount on Lucian Freud. Maybe. Best guess. Not trying to say she’s riding dirty with the Portland philanthropic scene calling shotgun, but she could be. And it would all technically be legal.

Protip: Don’t get any big ideas unless there’s an arsenal of lawyers handling your affairs. Tax dodgers have to pay back everything they owe plus up to a 30% penalty on the value of the purchase.

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By Clayton

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Clayton Schuster

Sr. Contributor

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