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Bacon's works on despair fetch six figures

IN THE 1940s it took six years to persuade a British museum to accept a painting by Francis Bacon as a gift; in the 1950s collectors were prepared to pay about pounds 300 for one. Yesterday, a year after the death of arguably Britain's greatest 20th-century artist at the age of 82, three paintings achieved six-figure sums in sales at both Christie's and Sotheby's.

Bacon's record is pounds 3.53m, but that was set in 1989. That such high prices can be fetched today in recessionary times said more about Bacon's standing in art history than the art market. He remains one of the few British painters with an international following among collectors. Each of the works sold yesterday reflects the artist's obsession with the human cry, the despair, the pain and the bleakness of human existence.

One of Sotheby's two examples, Study for a Portrait, dating from the early 1950s, sold for pounds 562,500 (against an estimated pounds 300,000 to pounds 400,000) to a European private collector. In the same sale, the 1965 portrait of Lucian Freud, a fellow modern master, made pounds 221,500 (estimate, pounds 250,000 to pounds 300,000).

Christie's sold Bacon's 1962 painting, Figure Turning, a powerful image of a man in twisted, contorted position against a bleak, black background, for pounds 529,500, just over its low estimate.

In 1991, Bacon told the Independent that among the younger generation, 'there is no real talent around at the moment'. He did, however, mention Miguel Barcelo as an artist to watch. Moules et Gants Rouges by this Spanish artist, born in 1957, was sold at Christie's for pounds 36,700.

Although one leading dealer dismissed both sales as 'the weakest contemporary auctions I've seen for some time', buyers at Sotheby's clearly thought otherwise: only 28 out of 117 works failed to sell, achieving the highest total for a London contemporary art sale since June 1991. Christie's fared less well this time, with half the items remaining unsold.

(Photograph omitted)