Bacon’s celebrated 1969 triptych of portraits of his friend and fellow artist Lucian Freud, which had never come up at auction before, fetched £89m at Christie’s in New York, after a seven-way bidding war.
The price, paid by an unnamed buyer, was more than £35m over the estimated value, which had been set in advance of the eagerly awaited sale, which broke records as the most lucrative of all time.
The price of the Bacon painting eclipsed the £74m which was paid last year when Edvard Munch’s The Scream came up for auction at Sotheby’s, also in New York.
The three-panelled painting, called Three Studies of Lucian Freud, depicts the late artist sitting on a chair from three different angles against an orange background.
The 6ft-high work is said to be one of only two existing full-length triptychs of Freud, who died two years ago.
The painting, with an opening price of £50m, sold after a fierce and frantic ten-minute bidding war in the packed New York sales room and via telephone.
When the bidding stopped, the packed crowd in the sales room burst into applause – although disappointed bidders could be seen leaving.
The most expensive price paid for a work of art is still thought to be £158m, which the Qatari royal family paid two years ago for The Card Players by Paul Cezanne.
The record Bacon auction price is more than double that of his second most expensive piece of artwork. Triptych, 1976, was bought for £54m in 2008 by Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich at an auction at Sotheby’s in New York and there is speculation that the Russian business tycoon is the mystery buyer behind the latest sale.
The New York Times reported that William Acquavella, an art dealer in the city who had acted on behalf of Freud before his death, had bought the painting on behalf of an anonymous client.
Larry Gagosian, a Manhattan dealer who was trying to buy the painting on behalf of a client, said: “I went to $101m [£63m] but it hardly mattered.”
Another contender was Hong Gyu Shin, the director of New York’s Shin Gallery, who said he was bidding for himself. “I was expecting it to go for around $87m,” he said.
Francis Outred, head of European post-war and contemporary art at Christie’s, said: “Three Studies of Lucian Freud, executed in 1969, is a true masterpiece that marks Bacon and Freud’s relationship, paying tribute to the creative and emotional kinship between the two artists.
“The juxtaposition of radiant sunshine yellow contrasting with the brutal physicality and immediacy of the brushstrokes in this celebrated lifesize triptych is what makes Bacon’s art so remarkable.”