Unseen 'black eye' Freud self-portrait on sale

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They say you have to suffer for your art. Which might explain why Lucian Freud went straight to the studio when he was punched by an irritated taxi driver - but not for a lie down to recover.

A newly discovered self-portrait of Britain’s most famous – and bankable – living artist is going on sale next month which shows the artist sporting a black eye. Legend has it that the notoriously reclusive painter, widely considered to be Britain’s best living artist, decided to use his run-in with an angry taxi driver to compose an unusual self-portrait rather than wallow over an altercation that left him noticeably worse off than his adversary.

The composition begins just above the artist’s top lip and ends at a tousle of messy brown hair. But it is the angry swelling around Freud’s left eye that makes the portrait so unusual. It is only the third time a self-portrait of Freud, now 87, has become available through an auction and it is expected to fetch between £3m and £4m when Sotheby’s sells it next month.

“It’s a very unusual painting,” said Oliver Barker, a contemporary art specialist at Sotheby’s. “The person who owns this painting used to sit regularly for Lucian Freud throughout the 1970s. He turned up one day for a sitting to find the artist flustered and angry because he had just been punched by a taxi driver. Lucian cancelled the man’s sitting because he wanted to immediately get to work on a self-portrait.” The painter did not manage to land a punch on the taxi driver, according to the owner.

Georgina Adams, market editor-at-large for the Arts Newspaper, said she believed the seller, whose identity is being kept a secret, will have little problem reaching the estimated sale price. “I think it will fetch a good price,” she said. “If you collect the work of a particular artist acquiring a good self-portrait would add enormously to that collection. Despite the economic climate, really good contemporary art is still selling well.”

In recent years Freud’s work has been increasingly sought after by collectors across the globe, particularly billionaires in Russia and the Middle East who see the acquisition of in-demand contemporary artwork as a fine blue-chip investment.

In May 2008 the Freud masterpiece “Benefits Supervisor Sleeping”, which portrayed a large woman sleeping naked on a sofa, broke the record for the most expensive painting by a living artist when it was bought by Russian billionaire Roman Abramovitch for $33m.

Although the recession has made the art market a less predictable place, Freuds come up so rarely that they almost always generate intense interest. Sources in the art world say Freud paintings are currently selling privately for up to £10m each.

The portrait of Freud with a black eye will inevitably draw comparisons to other famous self-portraits of injured artists such as Van Gogh’s “Self Portrait with Bandaged Ear” and “Self Portrait with Injured Eye” by Freud’s firm friend and fellow Colony Club drinker Francis Bacon.

In public Freud is notoriously reclusive but in comments he made once about his friendship with Bacon he remarked how easily he found himself in the middle of fist fights. “I used to have a lot of fights,” he recalled. “It wasn’t because I liked fighting, it was really just that people said things to me which I felt the reply was to hit them. If Francis was there he’d say, ‘Don’t you think you ought to charm them?’”

But Georgina Adams believes prospective buyers will be more interested in the quality of the brushstrokes than the unusual story behind the painting's composition. “It’s a self-portrait, it’s never been seen before and Freuds don’t come onto the market very often,” she said. “That’s what will make the painting sell, not the black eye.”

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