Bacon left his best friend an £11m fortune. So where has it all gone?

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Even for an arts world where the unusual is quotidian, the decision by the painter Francis Bacon was remarkable. After his death in 1992 at the age of 82, his will left most of his £11m fortune to a former Cockney barman and gay model, John Edwards, then aged just 41.

Even for an arts world where the unusual is quotidian, the decision by the painter Francis Bacon was remarkable. After his death in 1992 at the age of 82, his will left most of his £11m fortune to a former Cockney barman and gay model, John Edwards, then aged just 41.

Bacon called Edwards his "only true friend"; but some in the business wondered how good a friend Mr Edwards would be to the artist's works.

But the story has acquired a remarkable twist - with the revelation that Mr Edwards, who died in a Bangkok hospital in March 2003 of lung cancer, left an estate with a gross value of £3.12m; after liabilities, it is worth just £786,702.

Now the question everyone is asking is: where did the rest go? As the price of works by dead artists only ever rises, Bacon's estate should have been worth between £30m to £50m. Yet the will suggests it has been dissipated.

Early suggestions are that Mr Edwards spent the money on properties in Suffolk for his parents and other family members. A year before his death, he also set up the John Edwards Charitable Foundation, intended to promote Bacon's work. He willed the bulk of his estate to trustees who could distribute it to "any charity or individual".

But there are some indications he may have given away many of the paintings that made up the collection before his death, perhaps to avoid death duties. Mr Edwards's mother, Beattie, has a triptych by Bacon, valued at about £3m, hanging on the wall of her Hackney home. David Edwards, his brother, said in July: "The fact is John has been very, very generous to all of his family and all those he loved."

Many speculated that John Edwards's estate, with the cash and paintings he had been bequeathed, would go to his long-time boyfriend Philip Mordue, a fellow East Ender. But the paucity of the estate suggests he sold off or gave away many of the paintings, and used the proceeds to fund a lavish Bangkok lifestyle.

But some of the cash remains for going out in style. He willed £50,000 should be spent on a funeral party for his family and friends at the exclusive Harrington Club in Chelsea, London. For Mr Edwards, such a send-off will be a fitting end to a life which began anonymously but soon encompassed worldwide fame through his contact with Bacon.

The painter's reputation continues to grow after his death, with his paintings selling for millions. In January, the Tate gallery announced it had been given 1,200 items that were no more or less than the sweepings from his studio floor.

Yet art world rumour says that after Bacon's death the Tate turned down Mr Edwards's offer to donate it the studio itself. Thus it is now on show - painstakingly recreated - in Dublin at the Hugh Lane Gallery.

Mr Edwards, the dyslexic son of an East End docker, used to visit Bacon's south Kensington mews house - which also housed his ramshackle studio - every morning. He was the only person ever allowed into Bacon's studio while he worked, and was Bacon's confidant and muse. Mr Edwards featured in 30 of Bacon's paintings and was his closest companion for 18 years. Yet although both men were gay, Mr Edwards always denied they were lovers.

After Bacon's death, Mr Edwards moved to Thailand with his boyfriend Philip Mordue (nicknamed Phil the Till), ostensibly to escape the attentions of the press. But there may have been other pressures: Mr Mordue, now 54, was reportedly shot in a bar in Pattaya in 1997, and spent four days in hospital from a bullet wound in the neck.

Friends described Edwards as "a typical East End diamond geezer".

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