Painter's discarded works, diaries and bits and bobs rescued from skip by electrician create a storm in Surrey
Source: The Guardian (www.guardian.co.uk), by Charlotte Higgins
Nearly 30 years ago, an electrician called Mac Robertson working at Francis Bacon's studio in west London noticed the artist dumping rubbish in a skip. Something of a squirrel, and clearly no fool, he persuaded Bacon to let him keep these few discarded paintings, diaries, photos and bits and bobs. He hung on to the stuff, storing it in a friend's attic in Surrey.
Last night, this collection of Bacon's trash, now accorded the grandiose title of the Robertson collection, was definitively transformed, from its owner's perspective, into treasure. Conservatively expected to make £500,000, the 45 lots in fact fetched a total of £965,490, not including 17.5% buyers' premium.
"It was one of those momentous sales. It was packed; standing room only at the back. We had to draft in more phones, and there was a lot of underbidding on the internet," said a spokesman after the sale.
A study for a portrait, possibly of fellow painter Lucian Freud, fetched £400,000; its estimate was £12,000 to £18,000. A study of a dog made £260,000, on an estimate of £2,000 to £3,000. Other oil-on-canvas studies for portraits fetched between £30,000 and £46,000.
Most of the lots could be described as ephemera at best. Among them were various diaries, some entirely blank. An entry in one for October 24 1971 baldly states the fact of his ex-lover's suicide: "George [Dyer] died in Paris". It fetched £2,000, on an estimate of £300 to £500.
There was a snap of Bacon and an unknown man with a handlebar moustache up the Eiffel tower - a snip perhaps at £400. There was a black and white photograph of one of his works bearing a random yellow paint stain - an act of chance that Bacon clearly liked since later images of the painting show that a similar yellow streak was incorporated on the real painting. That made 10 times its estimate, fetching £3,600.
It is safe to say that Ewbank Fine Art Auctioneers and Valuers, near Woking, Surrey, whose proudest claim on their website is that they boast an "unrivalled position on the A3", has never seen anything like the Robertson collection.
The sale had fallen into their lap because they happen to be the local saleroom of Mr Robertson's friend with the loft. "We are antique and fine art auctioneers. This is absolutely not our normal thing," said Chris Ewbank, the establishment's proprietor.
Nor are they used to the level of interest the sale has attracted: Mr Ewbank said he had been contacted by potential buyers from Australia, New Zealand, the US and Ireland, where Bacon was born and brought up, and where he claimed to have enjoyed numerous sexual encounters as a young teenager with the grooms working for his wealthy father, a keen man of the turf.
Mr Ewbank's staff had organised a sweepstake predicting the sale's takings. One employee said yesterday afternoon that she had put herself down for £172,000, "but now I think that's far too low". Just a bit, one might say. Three of the lots were life portrait heads discarded by Bacon, the faces cut out of the canvas. She held one up and inserted her face into the gap, like the old-fashioned seaside resort joke. Which would not quite, perhaps, be the accepted practice at Christie's. They went for between £30,000 and £40,000.
The prices for the 45 lots were modest, of course, compared with the Francis Bacon Pope painting coming up at Sotheby's New York next month; it could fetch £15m or more, very likely breaking the record for a postwar British artwork sold at auction. In Woking, cheque stubs were estimated at £150 to £250, and made £550. One, from December 1968, notes that Bacon paid £100 to "Mum", which pales a little considering that on April 19 he paid £500 to one of his favourite restaurants, Wheelers. But does it add anything to our appreciation of one of the greatest British artists of the 20th century that he dutifully paid the London Electricity Board £34 6s 5d on December 11 1968?
According to Mr Ewbank: "This stuff is a little bit of history. If it weren't here, it would be gone for ever. We have a little bit of extra insight into him." Does he have qualms about selling paintings that were rejected, indeed deliberately mutilated, by the artist? "The best judges of art are not the artists themselves," he said. "The fact that these paintings were discarded does not mean that they are not of value. And he did say he regretted destroying so much of his work."