Here's What It Was Like To Watch Bidders Battle For A Painting That Sold For $142 Million

Paige Cooperstein

It took all of six minutes for Francis Bacon's triptych "Three Studies of Lucian Freud" to fetch a record-setting $142.4 million when it came under the hammer last night at Christie's in New York.

That makes it the most expensive work of art ever sold at auction. It was also the first time these three paintings were on the auction market after they were owned separately for 15 years. 

We were in the room last night when the painting sold, and while a buzz ran through the packed crowd at the auction house's Rockefeller Plaza, it was restrained to a proper golf-clap level.

They politely applauded twice more during the session, a sign they were impressed by the sales of both Jeff Koons' "Balloon Dog (Orange)," which won a hammer price of $52 million ($58.4 million total), and Andy Warhol's "Diamond Dust Shoes," which took a winning bid of $4.25 million ($4.93 million total) after a particularly harried back-and-forth session between over-the-phone bidders. 

The winning bid for Bacon's three gold-framed paintings of his friend and rival figurative painter Lucian Freud hit $127 million, but the total price climbed to $142.4 million with the buyer's premium (at Christie's, that's 12% of the hammer price for pieces over $50,000.)

Seven bidders fought for the piece both in person and over the phone in a frenzied six-minute bidding war for the triptych, the only piece of art physically in the room during the evening sale. The winning bid came over the phone, and the buyer remains anonymous.

"A million dollars is a lot of money," the British auctioneer intoned when bidding for the Bacon momentarily stalled. The auctioneer spoke clearly and calmly while keeping up the pace in the room. Two men stood behind him and spotters stood among the hundreds in the sale room to point out bidders who might have gotten lost in the swell.

"Beautiful thing, beautiful thing," the auctioneer crooned to encourage more bidding. Other times, he'd cut the tension with "Yes, I see you bidding. Two-eight (as in $2.8 million) is your bid. Does your client know that?" Then he'd crack a wry smile.

"Three Studies" sold in one of the longer bidding wars of the evening, which saw nearly all 73 lots, or works of art for sale, make their minimums. Only a couple lots were passed, which means the work couldn't be sold because bidding hadn't reached the seller's minimum price, and four were withdrawn.

Bidding ended before 9:30 p.m. after starting late (even later than the announced 15-minute delay) to give bidders time to adjust to the change of the Bacon triptych from Lot 32 to Lot 8a. Instead of having to wait until the middle of the evening for the most-hyped piece, bidders had at the painting within 20 minutes of starting the sale.  

It was a blockbuster evening for Christie's: Sales totaled $691.6 million in one night, the highest auction total in art market history.  

The big week for auctions continues tonight. Next on the block at Sotheby's is a piece from Andy Warhol's famed Disaster series: "Silver Car Crash (Double Disaster)." Warhols routinely sell for millions, and since they're silk screened they're often not particularly rare pieces. But because "Silver Car Crash" isthe last privately owned car crash work in a set of four, Sotheby's says it could fetch upward of $60 million at tonight's evening sale in New York. 

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