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The London School June 2006
British figurative art came into being in 1976 with The Human Clay, an exhibition organised by R. B. Kitaj. Lucian Freud (born 1922) and Francis Bacon (1909-1992) accompanied by Frank Auerbach (1931), Leon Kossof (1926), Michael Andrews (1928-1995) and Ronald Brooks Kitaj (1932), met in the Colony Room in Soho, London and offered an alternative to the mainly abstract painting of the post-war era. In opposition to the abstract movement and the predominance of colour in painting, the London School stands for “realistic” painting, which aims to get behind surface appearances to reveal the inner truth of the subject. It is painting that intentionally provokes by showcasing subjects that are often utterly unattractive and in crude postures.
Prices of the top members of the London School have risen tenfold in as many years. The movement’s leaders, Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon, have benefited most from this enthusiasm.
Prices for Lucian Freud have gone on to double since his large retrospective at Tate Britain in 2002. For example, Red Haired Man on a Chair (1962-63) went for GBP 3.7 million (EUR 6.8 million) on 9 February 2005 at Christie’s, the highest price ever paid for his work. Even his small works are selling like hot cakes for unheard of amounts. Portrait of John Deakin, an oil painting measuring 30x25cm from 1963, goes on sale at Sotheby’s on 21 June 2006 at an estimate of GBP 1.5-2 million. This same painting fetched GBP 810,000 at Christie’s on 25 June 1997 against an estimate of GBP 200,000-300,000. Lucian Freud is already ranked in the top ten sales of the year.
Francis Bacon remains the most expensive of the group. In May 2005, he hit a new record when Study for a Pope I (1961) went for USD 9 million at Sotheby’s. Since the beginning of the year, his prices have risen 53% and bids over a million have multiplied: GBP 2.3 million (EUR 3.4 million) for Two Figures at a Window (1953) at Sotheby’s London on 9 February 2006 and GBP 4.6 million (EUR 6.7 million) for Study from Portrait of Pope Innocent X by Velazquez the day before at Christie’s.
However, the art lover can find a large selection of prints at auction that are much more affordable. Eight percent of them go for between EUR 2,000-5,000. On the other hand, his drawings are very rare despite their cheapness: only three drawings have been put up for sale in 15 years. The last appeared at auction in 2004 and only fetched GBP 900.
Apart from the movement’s two figureheads, the prices of Frank Auerbach, Leon Kossof, Michael Andrews and Ronald Brooks Kitaj have also risen over the past months. Frank Auerbach’s works are now 62% more expensive than in 2005. In one of the pleasant surprises of the year, E.O.W Head on her Pillow went for GBP 190,000 (EUR 276,000), triple its estimate, at Christie’s South Kensington on 10 February 2006. Even the less well known members of the group, like Leon Kossof, Michael Andrews and Ronald Brooks Kitaj, are following the upward trend. A Leon Kossof drawing goes for around EUR 4,000-6,000 and a Kitaj large-format painting is roughly EUR 50,000. On 8 February this year, a Michael Andrews oil painting, Study of a Head for Lights (1968), fetched GBP 150,000 (EUR 218,910), more than double Christie’s high-end estimate.
In France, however, the market for London School artists remains restricted to less important works and multiples. The last Francis Bacon painting auctioned in a French sale room was in 1994 when Crouching Nude, an unsigned 2 metre-high painting, sold at De Quay-Lombrail for just FFR 2.1 million (EUR 320,000).