Three Studies of Lucian Freud, a triptych of portraits by midcentury London painter Francis Bacon, was sold Nov. 12 at Christie’s in New York for $142.4 million, making it the most expensive work of art ever sold at a public auction.
The buyer’s identity has been a closely guarded secret, amid rampant speculation. British newspaper The Daily Mail first fingered Roman Abramovich, a Russian oil tycoon whose art holdings include a different Bacon triptych (which cost $86 million). Fellow U.K. paper The Daily Telegraph speculated that oil-rich Qatar was the buyer, shopping for trinkets in advance of the tiny Arab country’s hosting of the 2022 World Cup.
But the guessing started anew when the painting arrived Dec. 20 at the Portland Art Museum.
Museum curator Bruce Guenther says he tracked down the buyer and snagged a three-month loan of the painting, which is on display until March 30.
While museum officials won’t reveal who owns the painting, conversations with a number of people in the art world suggest a couple of things: First, that ownership can probably be narrowed down to a few folks and, second, that there are significant tax benefits to the Bacon painting’s detour through Portland on its way to its final destination.
Guenther has been tight-lipped.
But he’s dropped two big hints. On Dec. 16, he told The New York Times that the buyer was on the West Coast. Last week, he told WW that the buyer was “a previous donor and lender” to the Portland Art Museum.
Based on an ever-grinding local rumor mill and those criteria, we offer a few possibilities for your perusal.
The Front-runner: Eli Broad
Real-estate and insurance billionaire.
The case for: At an estimated net worth of $6.3 billion, he’s got the money. He’s also been one of the most active lenders and donors to the Portland Art Museum. A number of art insiders in Portland have pegged him as the most probable owner of Three Studies of Lucian Freud. Broad is building a $40 million museum in Los Angeles for his private art collection. Robert Kochs, owner of Augen Gallery, says the Bacon piece “would be the perfect thing to headline a museum.” In addition, a prominent Portlander told WW he heard from someone closely connected to the museum that the purchaser of the painting was a consortium of three people: Broad, singer Barbra Streisand (a noted art collector and member of the board of trustees of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art) and Greg Renker, a multimillionaire from California who has been a big donor to the Portland Art Museum.
The case against: Broad has never been the sort to buy anonymously, says local art critic Jeff Jahn, and he’s never bought a piece for more than $24 million. Also, Portland Art Museum director Brian Ferriso and Broad’s art foundation spokesperson both tell WW Broad isn’t the guy.
The Hollywood Mogul: Michael Ovitz
Billionaire art collector and investor, former Disney president and talent agent.
The case for: Ovitz’s foundation is one of the largest donors to the Portland Art Museum, and Ovitz was at the Nov. 12 auction at Christie’s.
The case against: Despite media reports he was among the bidders for the Bacon painting, after the auction Ovitz seemed miffed: “I am an art collector,” he told Bloomberg.com. “This is not about collecting. For a moment last night, I thought I was in the commodities market.”
The Software King: Paul Allen
Microsoft billionaire and owner of the Portland Trail Blazers.
The case for: Allen’s $15.8 billion give him the wherewithal, plus he’s an avid art collector and donor to the Portland Art Museum.
The case against: Allen’s art collection, while including a Jasper Johns, has tended more toward Renoir, Monet and Hendrix.
The Local: Jordan Schnitzer
Schnitzer family heir and president of Harsch Investment Properties.
The case for: The Schnitzer family has been a generous financial backer of the Portland Art Museum for decades, and Jordan Schnitzer has reportedly talked avidly in public about Bacon’s art.
The case against: Schnitzer’s collection is tightly focused on post-war prints, and his curator says he’s not involved.
While ownership of Three Studies of Lucian Freud is in question, there seems little doubt its presence in Oregon has tax benefits, specifically the state’s lack of sales or use taxes. “When people who buy these high-end artworks park them in an institution, particularly in Oregon,” says gallerist Elizabeth Leach, “they don’t have to pay the taxes.”
Artworks shipped immediately from New York after auction are not subject to that area’s nearly 9-percent use tax.
If the buyer is from a state that has a use tax, such as California, payment can be avoided through the buyer’s “functional use” of the artwork in another state for 90 days before bringing it to California. For example, it could be displayed in an Oregon art museum. On a $142.4 million piece, this could save up to $14 million.
Leach says this situation has been great for Portland’s art audience. “We had a van Gogh,” she says. “We’ve had a Damien Hirst for these reasons.”
Richard Speer provided additional reporting for this story.