Three Studies of Lucian Freud, a triptych painting by the late British artist Francis Bacon, sold on Tuesday at a Christie’s auction in New York City for $142,405,000. Is that some kind of record?


Indeed it is. It’s currently the most expensive piece of art ever auctioned, globally. And it was record-setting even before a winner was declared, with a prebid asking price of $85 million, the highest in auction history. Three Studies easily beat the former best-selling painting, Edvard Munch’s The Scream, which sold at Sotheby’s in New York last year for $119 million. Although to be fair, if you adjust for inflation, the Three Studies sale isn’t all that historic: Vincent Van Gogh’s Portrait of Dr. Gachet sold at Christie’s in 1990 for $82.5 million, which is roughly $149.5 million in 2013 dollars. Also, works in private auction regularly go for insane amounts, with the supposed record being Paul Cézanne’s The Card Players, which reportedly sold to Qatar’s royal family for more than $250 million in 2011 (nothing’s been made official on that one). Even so, it’s noteworthy because it’s a lot of zeroes for an artist who isn’t a household name.

Who is Francis Bacon again? Isn’t he the guy who supposedly wrote all of William Shakespeare’s plays?

No, you’re thinking of the other Francis Bacon. But you raise a valid point. When a Pablo Picasso gets big auction numbers—such as $106.5 million for Nude, Green Leaves and Bust in 2010 or $104.2 million for Garçon à la pipe in 2004—it’s not as surprising. Even someone who’s never set foot in a museum knows Picasso’s name. Bacon takes some explaining; even among art lovers who recognize the Dublin-born painter, he can be controversial. Margaret Thatcher famously dismissed him as “that man who paints those dreadful pictures.” Jerry Saltz, writing for New York Magazine in 2009, described him as “an illustrator of exaggerated, ultimately empty angst.” And Australian art critic Robert Hughes once called Bacon a “painter of buggery, sadism, dread, and death-vomit.” Bacon’s most infamous work, Figure with Meat, is a reimagining of Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X but with more screaming and horror.

Wait, wasn’t an Andy Warhol painting supposed to sell for a higher price this week?

There was speculation that Warhol’s Silver Car Crash (Double Disaster), up for auction at Sotheby’s, would inspire an equally staggering and historic bidding war. It sold for $104.5 million, which is still pretty impressive—it handily beat the previous Warhol auction record of $71.7 million from 2007.

Why did Three Studies of Lucian Freud sell for so much? What’s so special about it?

You need to know some of the history behind it, says Michael Peppiatt, an art historian, author (Francis Bacon: Anatomy of an Enigma), and curator of several Bacon exhibitions, including one in Rome that featured the Three Studies triptych. (A triptych, for the uninitiated, is a three-panel piece of art, a form that Bacon often employed.) Three Studies of Lucian Freud was painted in 1969 and features a sometime rival of the artist and the grandson of Sigmund Freud. “You have the greatest painter of the 20th century capturing another great painter,” says Peppiatt. Bacon painted other, and in Peppiatt’s opinion, more inventive and powerful triptychs. But Three Studies is unique, because anybody with enough money could have bought it. Pilar Ordovas, the former head of Post War & Contemporary Art at Christie’s London, claims it’s “one of the last, if not the last, Bacon triptych from the 1960s to remain in private hands.”

How much competition was there for Three Studies? Did it get intense?

Very intense. It was standing-room only at Christie’s Rockefeller Center salesroom on Tuesday, and a Christie’s statement described the auction as “six minutes of fierce bidding.” Ordovas, who runs a private art gallery in London, was in attendance, and she was one of seven bidders vying for the piece. “It was incredibly exciting,” she says. “I was bidding on the behalf of a collector, and I almost didn’t get a chance to put my hand up.” She managed to get only one bid in, for just under $100 million dollars. “In my 14 years with Christie’s, I’ve never experienced anything like this,” she adds. “We’ll have to go a very long time before we see drama like this again.”

So who bought it?

Nobody knows—Christie’s doesn’t share that information—but there are rumors. Don Thompson, a Toronto-based economist and author of The $12 Million Stuffed Shark: The Curious Economics of Contemporary Art, says that at least one serious bidder was Chinese. “The painting was originally listed as lot 32 in the catalog, but they moved it up to lot 8A,” he says. “Apparently they had a Chinese bidder who was very interested, but he’d only bid if it was item No. 8, because 8 is a lucky number.”

Most accounts from the auction claim that William Acquavella, a New York dealer, bought the painting on behalf of an unidentified client. Some people suspect that the client is Roman Abramovich, the Russian oligarch who purportedly bought another Bacon painting, Triptych, 1976, for a then-record $86.3 million in 2008. “Is Roman Abramovich the mystery buyer?” a Daily Mail story non-so-subtly speculated this week. Thompson has another theory. “My guess is it was the Qatar Museums Authority,” he says. “Acquavella has bid for them before.” For now it’s anybody’s guess, but time will tell who owns the world’s most expensive painting. “It’ll surface,” Thompson says. “It’s too big to hide.”

Do we at least know who sold it?

Not really. That information is also anonymous. We know that the three panels were separated for 15 years and individually owned by collectors in Rome, Paris, and Japan. And then the Rome collector—who may or may not be lawyer Francesco De Simone Niquesa, depending on whether you believe the rumors—bought the other two panels and reunited the triptych. Then he sold the entire set to a U.S. collector for an undisclosed sum, who decided, according to Brett Gorvy, chairman of Christie’s postwar and contemporary art department, that “it didn’t fit into his broader collection.”

Thompson has another theory. “It was a flip,” he says. “It was bought by a consortium of three European dealers eight months ago. I know how much they paid for it, but I can’t tell you.” That, he says, is what truly makes the sale remarkable. “It’s not only the most expensive auction item of all time; it’s also the most profitable flip of all time. It’s the only painting ever purchased for more than $40 million dollars that’s been sold at a profit.”

Are we going to see more big sales for Francis Bacon paintings?

Ordovas isn’t so sure. Although she says the market for Bacon’s work “is incredibly strong and international,” she doesn’t anticipate a gold rush on all things Francis Bacon. “This is not a price that is not going to be easily repeated.” Even so, there are some tantalizing prospects. During the 1960s, Bacon made three triptychs of Lucian Freud, only two of which still exist. The first, in 1964, was dismantled; one panel belongs to the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art, another is at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, and he third is owned by a private collector. As for the 1966 triptych…. well, it depends who you ask. Brett Gorvy recently told the New York Times that it’s missing, but Ordovas disagrees. “It’s not lost,” she says. “It’s in a private collection.” Lost or otherwise, Peppiatt says a new Bacon could pop up anywhere. “Bacon was very generous with his friends and lovers,” he says. “That triptych may reappear, and other unknown works might surface. Bacon has always been a source of surprise.”

Bacon died of a heart attack in 1992, at 82 years old. Isn’t it kind of sad that he didn’t live long enough to see his art sell for hundreds of millions?

Peppiatt, who was friends with Bacon for almost 30 years, says that he “regrets that Bacon isn’t around to open the champagne.” (Bacon famously enjoyed consuming copious amounts of champagne during daylight hours.) But Bacon pretty openly detested the idea of art selling for exorbitant profits. As he once said, “Prices are so ridiculous that people go to galleries because they are obsessed by the money.”

(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in Bloomberg Businessweek.)