Freud and the big picture

IN 1988 the Scottish National Galleries bought their only Lucian Freud painting, Two Men, for £300,000, straight from his dealer. It now looks like an increasingly good buy, as yesterday the 85-year-old painter set the record auction price for any living artist.

Benefits Supervisor Sleeping, a life-sized painting of a naked, fairly large, sleeping Jobcentre supervisor sold at Christie's in New York for $33.6 million (17.2 million). It was easily more than the previous living artist's record, the 11.3m paid last year for Jeff Koons's Hanging Heart (Magenta Gold).

At a time when creeping doubts are heard about the art market, soaring to new records when everything around it slumps, Freud experts say he has claimed what was rightfully his.

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"He's the Rembrandt of our day," says Richard Calvocoressi, the former director of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, who brought two Freud exhibitions to Edinburgh and oversaw the 1988 purchase. "Freud's prices at auction have been going up to this sort of level over the years. It's not out of the blue. His greatest works are probably very, very difficult to value."

It was only last June, Calvocoressi notes, that Damien Hirst, now 42, had the living artist auction record, when Lullaby Spring, a three-metre-wide steel cabinet with 6,136 pills, sold for $19.2 million dollars to the Emir of Qatar.

"It's taken Freud a lifetime, a whole career to reach this level. It's a career lasting nearly 70 years," says Calvocoressi. "This is one of his great portraits, of his large figures, done in the past 10 or 15 years."

Christie's never hedged their bets ahead of the sale. It was, the firm promised, the most important work by the painter ever to come under the hammer, and "may establish a new world auction record for any work by a living artist". It duly did. The market seemed to work like clockwork, as the painting fetched the higher end of Christie's pre-sale price estimate of between 12.5 and 17.5 million.

A British painter of German origin, born in Berlin in 1922, Freud studied art in London and held his first solo exhibition there in 1944. Above all a painter of people, he was shortlisted for the Turner Prize in 1989 and in 2001 famously painted the Queen.

Painted in 1995, Benefits Supervisor Sleeping shows London benefits supervisor Sue Tilley, now 51, sleeping on a dilapidated sofa. Freud had first painted "Big Sue" in his work Evening in the Studio, from 1993, after she was introduced to him by Australian performance artist Leigh Bowery.

The works were part of a celebrated series from the late 1980s to the mid-90s, when Freud moved into large-scale, life-size paintings that included portraits of Bowery and Tilley.

Tilley, now a Jobcentre manager, has joked in the past that the painter "got value for money" with "a lot of flesh".

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"I'm thrilled. I still can't believe such a bizarre thing has happened to me. It hasn't sunk in properly." Asked how she felt about posing nude, she says: "At first, I was a little bit embarrassed, but after a while I just got used to it and it became a completely normal thing to do, like going to the doctor."

At times Freud covered her tattoos with flesh-coloured paint, she says, because "he adores flesh so much, and to have sort of green flesh isn't really normal".

Pilar Ordovas, Christie's head of post-war and contemporary art in London, singles out one simple reason to The Scotsman why prices for Freud's works have risen so high: he does very few of them. "His output is quite small, and few works come up for auction," she says. "He works very slowly, not producing more than four paintings a year. As a rough approximation, there are about 100 works maximum in existence."

Freud's auctions have been gathering momentum in the past four or five years. In June 2007 his portrait of Bruce Bernard sold for 7.9 million, setting what was then the world auction record for a living European artist. In November Ib and Her Husband, a fascinating portrait of his daughter Isobel and her partner, sold for $19.3 million (9.9 million).

"It's a natural evolution of the price level, as well as it being an exceptional painting. Everyone has recognised the importance of Lucian Freud's work," says Ordovas.

Exhibitions of Freud's work have also geared up. There has been a recent retrospective at Tate Britain, a major exhibition in the Venice Biennale, and at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

From the beginning of his career, Freud's work were popular with academics, critics, and buyers. But very few pictures came on the market as they were mainly bought by a close group of friends and collectors around the artist, rarely changing hands.

That has changed recently. Collectors in Asia and other newer markets, whose huge wealth is said to drive many top sales, have joined those in Europe and America vying for his work. There was no word yesterday, however, on who the buyer of Benefits Supervisor Sleeping was.

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The painting was the highlight of Christie's New York post-war and contemporary art evening sale. The total sale was nearly $350 million, with 95 per cent of lots sold, proving that "the appetite for works of art continues unabated", the firm says. A Rothko changed hands for more than $50 million, and a Warhol for more than $30 million, staggering prices for individual paintings.

"The market was incredibly healthy, and it indicates the strength of the market. The results talk for themselves," Ordovas adds.

The upbeat talk hints at the worries and determination not to talk the art market into the slump. It's bucking the economic trend, is the positive message – and every time doubts emerge, they're silenced by another record.

But attention is now focusing on what is happening to more middle-range works, below the big sellers. In Scotland, there is surely the issue of how Scottish art, a niche market globally but still a bouyant one, will hold up.

Baird Ryan, managing director of Art Capital Group, a financial company which insures and makes loans secured by fine and decorative art works, says: "There's been some speculation that the market's soft. We see that the icons, those most desirable items, by the best artists, are being pursued more aggressively than the middle market. That's a familiar phenomenon in other markets, in the turmoil today."

The Freud sale backs a trend that emerged at huge sales of impressionist and modern art in New York two weeks ago, says Jane Morris, managing editor of the Art Newspaper: "Top quality works by blue-chip artists or works rarely seen on the market still did very well – and seem unaffected by the current economic climate." She notes that there was a record price of $41.5 million for a work by Monet, Le Pont du Chemin de Fer Argenteuil.

But overall, the total impressionist and modern art auction sales have been down, from about $800 million last year to about $600 million this year. "Market commentators are saying lesser works are either making modest prices, or finding fewer buyers," she says.


FREUD'S portrait of The Queen, painted in 2000-1, is held by the Royal Collection. The heavy brushstrokes of the work and its subject's sombre face caused an artistic uproar. The head of the National Portrait Gallery called it "thought-provoking and psychologically penetrating" but others said it was unflattering, and the Sun condemned it as a "travesty".

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Freud's Naked Portrait 2002 showed supermodel Kate Moss, nude and pregnant. He was said to have stayed at work on the painting the night of a black-tie dinner in his honour at Tate Britain, where crowds poured into his retrospective show. She was quoted as saying that, though the painter was 80 years old, he was still "very cool". In 2004, the rare celebrity portrait sold for 3.9 million at Christie's.

Girl with a white dog, 1951-52, is in the collection of the Tate Galleries. The subject is Freud's first wife, Kitty Garman. They married in 1948, and Freud completed a series of portraits of her, but the marriage ended after four years.