A late Francis Bacon self-portrait triptych from a period when the artist was becoming increasingly anxious about his own mortality has gone on display in Britain for the first time since it was painted a quarter of a century ago.
The work was bought directly from the artist by a friend two years after it was painted and had never been seen in public until the unnamed owner finally decided to sell.
After display in New York and Hong Kong, it was finally unveiled in London yesterday prior to its auction by Christie's next Thursday when it could even set a world record price for a Bacon.
It is estimated at between £3.5m and £5.5m while the world auction record was set at £5.8m ($10m) in New York last November. A European record of £5.1m was established in London in February.
Pilar Ordovas, Christie's director of post-war and contemporary art, said the work, entitled Three Studies for a Self-Portrait (1980), was "very exciting".
Although the experts were aware of the triptych, it has never been loaned to an exhibition and has not been seen for 26 years since it was painted.
It was also one of only two works that the artist sold himself instead of through his gallery, Marlborough.
As he hung onto it for two years before selling, however, it suggests it meant something special to the artist himself. "It was quite rare for Bacon to keep a picture for two years. Normally there was a huge pressure - the gallery would want to show them and sell them," said Ms Ordovas.
Both Bacon and Lucian Freud, two of Britain's greatest artists, had produced self-portraits and were famed for them, starting, in Bacon's case, with his first in 1956 when he was 47.
But by 1980, when Bacon was 71, he claimed that he had to paint himself as his friends and models were all dying - or, as the artist himself expressed it, "dropping like flies".
"He became more and more obsessed with painting himself because he didn't have anyone else to paint," said Ms Ordovas.
The three distorted faces from different perspectives showed the influence of Cubism, she added.
The triptych is the highlight of Christie's post-war and contemporary sale on Thursday.
But there are other works by the likes of Yves Klein, Martin Kippenberger and Jean-Michel Basquiat which are conservatively estimated to make £21m in total. Christie's Impressionist and modern art sale a day earlier has a minimum estimate of more than £70m and includes no fewer than a dozen Picassos.
Jussi Pylkkanen, president of Christie's Europe, said the auction house had actively sought out collectors with Picassos to sell because the demand was so strong. "He was a genius and a visionary," said Mr Pylkkanen. "But a great many people are very comfortable with him because there's a modernity and immediate appeal in the art. He's not outmoded, but absolutely of the moment."
The week ahead at Christie's
Other highlights of Christie's sales next week:
* Maisons dans la verdure (1881), left, by Paul Cezanne. Estimate £3.5m to £4.5m. A transitional painting on the artist's journey towards Post-Impressionism. Was once owned by the fellow artist Pierre-Auguste Renoir.
* Twelve Picassos, spanning different periods of his work beginning with a picture, Au Moulin Rouge, shown in his first exhibition, the Vollard show in Paris in 1901 and ranging to a late work, Homme a la pipe assis et amour, from 1969. Estimates from under £1m to £5m.
* Egon Schiele's lost masterpiece, Herbstsonne, which was rediscovered more than 60 years after last seen in public and restituted to the heirs of the late Jewish collector Karl Grunwald. Estimate £4m-£6m.
* Five works on paper by Egon Schiele from the collection of Dr Frederick Gerstel, one of the first collectors in America to recognise the Austrian artist's genius. The cheapest is estimated at up to £350,000, the most expensive at up to £3.2m.
* Two works by Yves Klein, using his signature blue, one - estimate £600,000-£800,000 - from the first exhibition to display his famous all-blue works.