Eight years after his death, Francis Bacon, perhaps England’s most acclaimed painter since Turner, is at the center of a major scandal. John Edwards, a former pub manager who is the painter’s heir, has sued Bacon’s longtime dealer, Marlborough Fine Art. Examining charges that the gallery cheated both the artist and Edwards, its chicanery shielded by a token Liechtenstein branch, Michael Shnayerson finds that all the parties in this scandal may have had hidden motives, including Bacon himself.
Francis Bacon has come to stay in an old stone building in Dublin.
The widely declared “greatest British painter since Turner,” once condemned by Margaret Thatcher as “that awful artist who paints those horrible pictures,” died in April 1992. But his spirit is here, in the Hugh Lane Municipal Gallery of Modern Art, to which his humble London studio has been brought, bit by carefully recorded bit. A team of eight archaeologists disassembled the site, noting the placement of every crumpled photograph and paint-smudged book in a three-dimensional grid. Now four curators are logging each of the studio’s roughly 10,000 items into a computer database. This is a first: no artist’s studio has ever been enshrined in quite this way before.
The visual links are fascinating, if inscrutable. A torn-out magazine photograph of monkeys with open mouths may have helped inspire Bacon’s “screaming pope” series. An old radiography text has drawings encompassed by frames and set off with arrows—both signature icons of many Bacon paintings. A large cutout picture of the head of one of Bacon’s lovers, George Dyer, appears to have served as a stencil for portraits of the “rough trade” thug. In November, Bacon’s studio will emerge from the boxes and folders, complete with walls and door, as a permanent installation, like one of those dioramas at the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan. It will be re-created just the way it was: dirty and messy.
These, as it happens, are also apt words to describe the lawsuit filed by Bacon’s estate against the artist’s longtime dealer, Marlborough Fine Art.
The lawsuit’s charges suggest the sort of art-world scandal not seen since ... well, since the last time Marlborough was accused of such chicanery, by the estate of painter Mark Rothko, in 1971. Indeed, the superficial similarities between the two cases, and the fact that Marlborough stands accused of cheating Bacon during the same period it grossly underpaid Rothko’s estate and was fined by a New York Surrogate Court judge more than $9 million for doing so, suggest to many observers in the art world a likelihood of guilt on the gallery’s part—though such guilt would be no less shocking for that.
To some, the Bacon case seems, if anything, more egregious, because the painter appeared so trusting of the gallery during his more than three decades of representation by it, and because the younger male friend who inherited Bacon’s estate—estimated to be worth between $50 and $100 million—is a shy, uneducated Cockney whose work experience, before meeting the painter, consisted of helping his older brothers run a string of pubs in London’s East End. But the picture that has emerged in the press—of big bad Marlborough hornswoggling the hapless illiterate—may be almost as distorted as one of Bacon’s portraits, given the gallery’s own, surprisingly persuasive, version of events. Imagine, instead, a real-life version of the board game Clue, in which a crime may have been committed in the drawing room and every character in the house has a motive.
Including the deceased.
From outside, 7 Reece Mews appears just as it did when Bacon worked there. It’s hard to locate, which is one of its charms: you take a tiny street off London’s Old Brompton Road, then look for the arrow that points to a cobblestoned court of brick-walled former stables. Though plain, the mews is a lovely sanctuary in South Kensington. Inside No. 7, obviously, nothing remains as it was. Now that the archaeological excavation is done, a work crew is sheetrocking the walls, finishing the transformation of Bacon’s studio into a sleek apartment where Bacon’s heir, 50-year-old John Edwards, will stay when he comes to London from his large country farmhouse in Suffolk, or from his home in Thailand.
By the time Bacon moved to this address in 1961, his critical reputation was established, though he remained, at age 51, a painter of modest means. That was fine by him: all his life he had a disregard for money that verged, literally, on the criminal. As a young man he moved from one small apartment to another, often without paying the rent due. As his paintings started selling, he loved having a wad of bills in his pocket to blow on gambling in private dens, or champagne at the Colony Room, a seedy Soho bar where he held court almost every day (the gleefully profane manager there, Muriel Belcher, had been shrewd enough, when she first saw how charismatic he was, to pay him £10 a week just to show up), or oysters at Wheeler’s fish restaurant, where he invariably picked up the check for a group that often included painters Lucian Freud and Frank Auerbach. After he bid his artist friends good night, he liked to spend money on young men who indulged his desire to be beaten, whipped, and sodomized—a lifelong acting out, it was sometimes said, of the physical abuse he’d received from his quick-tempered fool of a father, a military man who bred horses in Ireland.
Otherwise, Bacon spent little money on himself, and the studio reflected that. A steep wooden staircase with a rope banister led up to a bare kitchen and tiny bed-sitting-room with lightbulbs dangling from the ceiling. The adjacent studio was as chaotic as the apartment was stark. Its door was a palette of paint smears—as close, Bacon liked to joke, as he ever got to abstract art. Within lay piles of what appeared to be garbage: torn newspaper and magazine pictures, creased photographs of the friends he liked to paint, and hundreds of unwashed, discarded paintbrushes in buttered-beans and orange-juice cans. On his easel would be the next of his startling yet strangely beautiful portraits, the features of his subject stretched to the grotesque and rendered all the more striking by the streaks and gobs of excess paint that Bacon flung onto the canvas with inspired daring.
Three years before his move to Reece Mews, Bacon had left his first dealer, a mannishly dressed lesbian named Erica Brausen, to sign with London’s hottest gallery for contemporary artists, Marlborough Fine Art. It was a move made less to burnish his career than to settle a £5,000 gambling debt that Bacon felt Brausen would be unable to pay off for him. In return for his signing a 10-year contract, Marlborough advanced him the money against current and future paintings, with the price of each to be determined by its size. A painting measuring 20 inches by 24 inches was valued at £165 ($462), while one of 65 inches by 78 inches was valued at £420 ($ 1,176); these were two sizes that Bacon favored. According to the contract, the painter would try to supply the gallery with £3,500 ($9,800) worth of pictures each year, and would be represented exclusively by Marlborough, which would also handle all his finances—acting, in effect, as his manager.
Four decades later, Bacon’s estate would start asking pointed questions about that arrangement. Why, its complaint asks, was an artist so cavalier about money allowed to sign a binding contract without independent legal representation? Why was the pay scale for an artist of Bacon’s stature based on measurement, and why did it not include a provision for paying Bacon a higher percentage of the retail price of his paintings if their market value increased over that 10-year period? Why, though Marlborough was required by the agreement to give Bacon an accounting of the paintings sold, did it appear never to do so? And why, the estate began to wonder, were Bacon’s paintings not sold in London, but through Marlborough’s notorious Liechtenstein branch, Marlborough AG?
At the outset, Bacon had no cause to complain. New York dealer Richard Feigen had staged a show of Bacon paintings in Chicago. “I was getting $1,300 for the most expensive paintings,” Feigen recalls ruefully. “The others were priced between $900 and $ 1,200.” No one was necessarily buying them. The Marlborough deal gave Bacon his market price for 8 or 10 paintings a year—guaranteed. It also put him in the hands of Frank Lloyd, the most brilliant English art marketer of the postwar period.
Lloyd, born Franz Kurt Levai near Vienna in 1911, had started Marlborough after World War II with a fellow Austrian refugee, Harry Fischer, naming it for the Duke of Marlborough to lend it an air of grandeur. The “old uncles,” as Bacon would come to call them, chose to deal in top-tier modern art, much of it acquired discreetly from highborn British families brought low by the war. For entrée, they relied on a junior partner, David Somerset, the future 11th Duke of Beaufort.
By the time he signed Bacon, Lloyd had fashioned Marlborough into a powerhouse that had virtually cornered the market on undervalued European painters of the early 20th century—such as Klimt and Schiele—while cosseting and promoting contemporary artists as no other gallery did. As efficient as an investment bank, Marlborough gave artists advances, staggered payments, and handled all their finances for them. Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth, Oskar Kokoschka, Ben Nicholson, Graham Sutherland, and Lucian Freud—all were excited and proud to be Marlborough artists. Many gave their art to the gallery on consignment, receiving nothing until a painting was sold. But Bacon wanted ready cash, so the gallery bought his paintings outright.
Lloyd’s shrewdest stratagem was to establish the branch in Liechtenstein. It was little more than a mail drop, but Lloyd and Fischer bought and sold much of the art they handled through Marlborough AG; that way, both they and their clients could exploit loopholes in English tax laws. “The legal avoidance of taxes was an integral part of the growth of Marlborough,” explains one longtime London dealer. “Lloyd’s real purpose in operating the gallery,” says another, “was to move currency around. It was much more efficient, he found, to move currency around by paintings than any other way—and they made money on the paintings, too!”
Why did other galleries not follow Marlborough’s lead? The first dealer laughs. “Laziness . . . and social responsibility. I think one should pay taxes.” By the mid-1970s, Bacon’s paintings were sold exclusively through Marlborough AG.
The paintings would be picked up in groups every few months by a Marlborough factotum named Valerie Beston, who soon came to play as large a role in Bacon’s life as he played in hers. Not only did “Miss B,” as Bacon fondly called her, log the new paintings into a record book and arrange for their sale by Marlborough AG, she also handled his mail, paid his bills, even dealt with his laundry. “Valerie was very, very attached to him—a kind of love,” says Michael Peppiatt, whose 1996 biography of Bacon, Anatomy of an Enigma, is, to date, the definitive one. “It was a major thing in her life, it was her raison d’être. It was like a shrine to Bacon in her office—photos and mementos.” For legal matters, Miss B steered Bacon to Marlborough’s solicitors. According to the estate, the solicitors, in turn, recommended the accountant Bacon used to prepare his tax returns.
At some point, Bacon established a Swiss bank account—almost certainly with help from Marlborough AG, though how much remains unclear. Into this account the gallery began to make partial payments for paintings it bought from the artist. For the Liechtenstein branch, this was a legal maneuver. For Bacon, as an English resident, establishing the account broke no law, either. But failing to declare Marlborough’s payments to the English Inland Revenue as taxable income did.
Midway through his 10-year agreement, Bacon chose to exercise an escape clause. Yet he stayed on as a Marlborough artist without a contract for the rest of his life. To those who side with the gallery in the Bacon case, this is the point that undercuts the estate’s legal action. Bacon, they argue, was pleased with how he was treated by Marlborough; if he hadn’t been, he would have left. Anyway, they say, he should have been pleased. In addition to paying him up front for his work, Marlborough was organizing major shows for him and meting out paintings in a carefully controlled way at steadily rising prices to establish him as a major artist.
“He did mention to me,” says one old friend, “when that contract was up, ‘I just can’t be bothered to go anywhere else. I can’t be bothered. I’ll stay with them.’”
“Francis once said to me, ‘I’d rather be in the hands of a competent crook than in the hands of an incompetent honest man,’” recalls art critic Brian Sewell of the Evening Standard. “What he said, and this shows the shrewdness of Francis, is that he preferred a third of a million pounds rather than half of half a million pounds. And what he said is that the prices were constantly being pushed up by Marlborough in a way that they would never be pushed up by anyone else. And so however little he got in broad percentage terms, it was still more than he’d have got if he went with anyone else.”
“He implied they’d been so good for him and put him where he was that he was grateful for that, and didn’t want to change,” says art historian Sam Hunter, recalling a conversation with Bacon about Marlborough. “And he was very loyal by character.”
There is, however, another interpretation for why Bacon never left Marlborough. Perhaps he feared that no other gallery would funnel money into a Swiss account as Marlborough did, enabling him to shelter a sizable chunk of his income from English taxes. Perhaps, too, the account put the painter in a vulnerable position. “He was perhaps less happy than he seemed,” suggests one old friend of Bacon’s who occupies a high enough position in the art world to be a sort of Deep Throat for the Bacon saga. Is that to say Bacon did feel trapped? “Yes, that’s the nub of it,” says this source, “but I can’t say any more.”
Lending credence to this theory are mentions, in a 1978 book, The Legacy of Mark Rothko, by Lee Seldes, of Swiss accounts established by Marlborough for another of its artists at roughly the same time. Like Bacon, Rothko had a Swiss account for partial payments from the gallery, in his case to avoid U.S. taxes. Seldes suggests he may have been haunted by the gallery’s knowledge of his illegal act. “Those who know about such things in the art world say that Marlborough often offered collectors as well as artists kickbacks deposited in numbered Swiss bank accounts,” Seldes writes. “If so, these arrangements might have made severing one’s ties with Marlborough . . . quite difficult.”
The Rothko case is mentioned only in passing in the Bacon complaint, but it hardly needs to be stressed, so striking are the parallels it depicts. To some in the art world, the only mystery is why Marlborough hasn’t already settled out of court with the Bacon estate: perhaps, goes the reasoning, Frank Lloyd pulled the same tricks with Bacon that he did with Rothko’s estate.
Those tricks, as prosecutors proved in 1975, included influencing the estate’s executors with blatant perks, to nudge them into selling some 100 of Rothko’s paintings to the gallery for a low lump sum of $1.8 million, then reselling them for windfall profits. When a U.S. judge called a halt to the sales, Marlborough ignored him, making numerous sales covertly. When the judge returned a $9.2 million penalty against it, the gallery tried to smuggle a trove of Rothko paintings out of U.S. jurisdiction, first shipping them from New York to a Canadian warehouse, then trying a dead-of-night maneuver to fly them to Liechtenstein. But prosecutors, alerted by an anonymous tip, foiled the plan.
Lloyd, charming and evasive throughout the Rothko trial, became a fugitive from U.S. justice. Humiliated into resigning his chairmanship in London, he lived his last years in the Bahamas with a new young wife and family, until his death in 1998 at the age of 86. Starting in 1983, day-to-day management of the gallery fell to the two children from his first marriage, Gilbert and Barbara, and a nephew, Pierre Levai. The Duke of Beaufort remained, apparently unruffled by Lloyd’s various crimes. Most Marlborough artists, including Bacon, remained, too, and the gallery, scandalized but solvent, soldiered on.
Whatever his feelings about the Rothko trial, Bacon was almost certainly less interested in it at the time than he was in a handsome 23-year-old pub manager from the East End, who confronted him rather belligerently one day in 1974 in the Colony Room. More than once, the young man explained, his older brother, who managed a pub called the Swan, had been tipped off that Bacon was coming, and stocked champagne for the occasion. But Bacon hadn’t showed, and now the brother was stuck with the stuff, because no one in the East End drank it. “I said to him, ‘Why don’t you turn up when you are supposed to turn up for this fucking champagne?’” John Edwards related later to a British journalist. “He found that very amusing, and he took a shine to me. He invited me to have lunch at Wheeler’s, but it’s a fish restaurant and I don’t like fish, so he bought me some caviar.”
Edwards became Bacon’s closest pal, though apparently not a lover-rather, a surrogate son. Unlike George Dyer, the petty criminal who was with Bacon for eight years and committed suicide in 1971, and a previous lover of Bacon’s named Peter Lacy, who played piano in bars, Edwards was neither self-destructive nor a drunk. He had shrewd judgment, which Bacon came to rely on, especially in weeding out some of the hangers-on in the painter’s entourage. Bacon’s friends had no choice but to accept Edwards, though some did so reluctantly. “He’s a nice guy,” says one close family friend of Bacon’s. “Up to a point.”
With Marlborough’s guidance, Bacon became world-famous over the next decade and, in 1989, the most expensive living artist when one of his triptychs sold at Sotheby’s for over $6 million. Yet he kept Reece Mews as his home and studio. People would see him at the South Kensington subway station—but only after 9:30 A.M., when Bacon could travel at the reduced senior-citizen rate. With friends, however, he was an easy touch, often pulling a mass of crumpled bills from his pocket and handing them over. Peppiatt recalls a late night when Bacon invited him to go gambling. “But I have no money,” protested Peppiatt, who was a student at the time. Bacon pulled cash from various cans around the studio and spotted him £50. At the private gambling den, Bacon quickly lost his own stake, while Peppiatt, to his own astonishment, won. When Bacon asked for a loan, Peppiatt, naturally, obliged. Bacon proceeded to lose that money, too. The next day, over lunch, Bacon insisted on repaying the money he’d “borrowed.”
As he grew closer to Bacon, Edwards adopted a more extravagant lifestyle, installing himself with friends and family in a Suffolk cottage called the Croft, which Bacon owned. According to Andrew Sinclair, whose book Francis Bacon: His Life and Violent Times appeared in 1993, the Edwards clan then acquired a nearby Georgian mansion with converted stables, and Dale’s Farm, a house with outbuildings. For transportation, they had a Rolls-Royce and a Bentley, one with the license plate BOY 1.
“One banker, who went to dinner with the Edwards brothers, found himself seated with eight men and two women at the table,” Sinclair reported in The Sunday Times soon after Bacon’s death. “Four of the men boasted of their prison sentences for burglary and demanding money with menaces; but the food and the wine were excellent. The rooms of the house were superbly decorated, but the banker was told that the old furniture and the pictures were changed every three months. The constant factor was the numerous paintings by Francis Bacon, which were even hung in the lavatories.”
Bacon, who often mused on the finality of death and remained an atheist all his life, appeared calm, almost cheerful, as he asked his family doctor and longtime friend Paul Brass to be one of the three executors of his will. “Don’t worry,” Bacon told him. “It’s such a simple will, it’ll all be over in a few weeks. Everything will go to John.”
Seemingly unconcerned about possible conflicts of interest, Bacon appointed as his other two executors Gilbert de Botton, a wealthy financier who had once been a director of the Marlborough gallery and who still served as Bacon’s financial adviser, and his own adored Valerie Beston. Death came quickly, of a heart attack in April 1992 while he was on a trip to Madrid to try to rekindle a romance with a much younger lover. On his easel back in Reece Mews, Bacon left an unfinished self-portrait.
Though probate took some years to establish, Edwards was given money by the executors, whenever he needed it, from his initial inheritance of cash, real estate, and a handful of paintings, valued in sum at $18 million. But the gallery held on to a dozen or so Bacon paintings—the bulk of the estate—taken by Valerie Beston from the painter’s studio soon after his death. “They kept telling him the market was flat; it was a bad time to sell,” says one source. And when Edwards asked Marlborough for a complete list of Bacon’s paintings sold over the years, and for how much, he thought the gallery’s answers seemed insufficient.
Unfortunately, the estate’s executors could be of no help. Gilbert de Botton resigned upon Bacon’s death, citing other obligations. Edwards believed that Valerie Beston could hardly be counted on for impartial counsel about Marlborough. And Dr. Paul Brass, though well-meaning, could get nothing more out of Marlborough than Edwards had: Beston told him that she was very busy, but was supplying Edwards with all the information he needed. Beston thought that everything was proceeding properly, and that her relations with Edwards were, as she reportedly put it, “very good.” But Edwards’s frustration was growing, especially since Marlborough, as a stipulation of Bacon’s will, was empowered to handle the paintings owned by the estate. “John was overwhelmed by having to carry on the Francis Bacon mantle, and wasn’t happy with how Marlborough was doing it, because they were running the show completely,” a person close to the situation recalls. Early on, this person says, Edwards had been contacted by an artist friend named Brian Clarke, volunteering to help with the estate. Now Edwards took him up on the offer, giving him power of attorney and asking him to scout around. “That,” says another close observer, “is when the niggles began.”
When Marlborough at last opened its warehouse, about a dozen full-size paintings, not all of them finished, lay within. Among them was a stunning crucifixion triptych done a year before Bacon died, in magenta and mauve. The Inland Revenue hired an expert from Christie’s to appraise the works, and after much back-and-forth a settlement was worked out: the government would take the triptych in lieu of transfer taxes for the whole estate. But Edwards, wary of the process and fond of the triptych, said no.
Not long after, at an old framer’s shop that Bacon had favored years ago, about 20 rolled-up canvases were found. These were mostly finished paintings, including two “screaming popes” from Bacon’s golden days in the 1950s, but some had been declared “abandoned” by the artist in his catalogue raisonné. Nevertheless, they were said to be signed on the front and back—an indication that Bacon approved them at the time. Now the estate was worth considerably more, perhaps five times more. A new settlement was agreed upon by the Inland Revenue and Bacon’s executors, but again, Edwards refused to accept it.
Then, four years into the process of settling the estate, the bombshell was revealed that Bacon had had a Swiss account, containing millions of dollars. Moreover, Valerie Beston had been a co-signatory on it, but apparently had failed to mention it to Edwards or anyone else involved with the estate in all this time.
Why? One Bacon friend observes that Beston had started as a secretary, as well as a nanny for Frank Lloyd’s children, and worked her way up to be a director of the gallery with an elegant home on Harley Street in London filled with art. Later, to the press, Brian Clarke exculpated Dr. Paul Brass from any wrongdoing, but pointedly failed to mention Beston. Yet a close associate of Beston’s recalls the day when Miss B showed her a check for £1,000 from Bacon, intended as a gift. Beston had never cashed it. “I didn’t want my relationship with Francis to be tainted by that,” she told the associate.
“She wanted to protect Bacon,” says another source close to the situation. “She lived to protect him.” Also, says another source, “she was old, and . . . had definitely gotten confused.” So conceivably Beston had somehow forgotten about the account. In any event, says the participant, “after the Swiss account turned up, Valerie Beston was exposed. So she had to leave.”
The estate moved to have Beston removed as an executor, and in December 1998 an English judge complied. Dr. Brass was also removed, much to his relief: the new money had meant new taxes to be paid to the Inland Revenue, but Edwards, now a resident of Thailand, had been able to acquire the whole Swiss account without having to pay any English taxes on it; theoretically, Brass was warned, he, as an executor, might have been obligated to pay them. Beston moved to France to tend a dying sister. Soon after, her lawyers reported that she was no longer mentally competent to answer queries about the account or anything else. (She is, in fact, not named in the estate’s complaint.) Since no executors remained, Edwards was allowed to name Brian Clarke to the post.
Also at the hearing, Marlborough was severed from the estate. As a result, Clarke and Edwards were able to choose new dealers to handle the Bacon paintings now owned by the estate: Gerard Faggionato in London, and Tony Shafrazi in New York.
Those appointments sent up red flags on both sides of the Atlantic. Faggionato was relatively unknown; Shafrazi was all too well known, as the dealer who made his name by spray-painting the words “Kill Lies All” on Picasso’s Guernica at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and who later represented Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring, among other hot 80s artists. Neither Faggionato nor Shafrazi was remotely in Marlborough’s league, but both were old pals of Clarke and Edwards’s.
Both, as it happens, have exhibited the stained-glass art of Brian Clarke.
By now the estate had a high-powered art-world lawyer in John Eastman, 60, of New York. Eastman, who is the brother of Linda McCartney, had represented many artists—one of his largest clients is the estate of Willem de Kooning—and on at least one occasion he had gone up against Marlborough, successfully representing the estate of the sculptor Naum Gabo in the early 80s. When Clarke described how Bacon’s paintings had been handled by Marlborough AG, Eastman perked up, remembering the role that the Liechtenstein branch had played in the Rothko case.
At Clarke’s urging, Eastman undertook to determine if Marlborough was hiding anything from the estate, and if Bacon had been underpaid systematically over the years. But every time he requested information from Marlborough, he felt the gallery failed to make a full disclosure. By last spring he was fed up, one observer says, and so was the estate.
The estate’s complaint, lodged in England, seems to make an impressive case. Much of it portrays Bacon as a naïf about money, easily duped by the gallery. At the start, the suit alleges, Marlborough let him sign the 10-year contract without independent representation. It paid him a pittance on the measurement scale when he should have earned much more. By way of example, the estate lists more than 40 paintings and studies Bacon created in 1965 and 1966, for which he was paid a total of £41,678 ($116,698) when their “fair market value,” based on sales at the time, was £101,226 ($283,432). Instead of granting Bacon full market value for his work, the complaint declares, the gallery paid him less than 50 percent of that, and appears never to have told Bacon what his paintings fetched when sold through Marlborough AG.
Moreover, says the estate, the gallery was acting not just as Bacon’s dealer but as his manager. As such, it had a “punctilio of honor,” as the legal phrase has it, to get Bacon the highest possible price for his paintings, and to give him the highest possible share of those sales. Yet in many cases, the estate says, Bacon received as little as 26 percent of the sale price of a painting. As one estate lawyer observes, the Rothko case established a definition of prima facie fraud on the gallery’s part for paying an artist 25 percent of a painting’s retail price.
The most shocking documents in the suit concern six paintings bought from Bacon by Marlborough AG in the last years of his life. Soon after Bacon’s death, his accountant received a receipt from Valerie Beston showing that Marlborough had deposited £1.6 million ($2,832,000) for the paintings into Bacon’s U.K. bank account in January 1992. But the complaint produced another document from Marlborough AG purporting to show that the Liechtenstein branch had paid Bacon £4.2 million ($7,434,000) for those same paintings. Worse yet, the estate claims, the £1.6 million was taken from Bacon’s own Swiss account. Not only was Bacon cheated out of half of what he was owed, the complaint suggests, he was paid with his own money!
When Eastman examined the list of Bacon paintings sold over the years, eventually surrendered by the gallery, 27 known paintings failed to appear on it. Some of those are visible in photographs taken of Bacon in his studio, yet Marlborough had no record of them. In an average year, John Edwards recalled, Valerie Beston picked up between 10 and 25 paintings. Marlborough’s list, however, showed only two or three paintings in some of those years. Was it possible that Bacon, lost in his creative world, had never been paid for those paintings at all?
Lawyers for the estate demanded the formal record book that Valerie Beston had kept of Bacon purchases, but Marlborough U.K. failed to produce it—then allegedly sent it out of jurisdiction to Marlborough AG. They asked for photographs, books, and documents removed by Beston from Bacon’s studio immediately after his death, but were given nothing. Instead, they learned that seven boxes of documents pertaining to Bacon’s estate had been spirited off to Marlborough AG. The attorneys went to the agency which had taken photographs of all of Bacon’s paintings, and ordered a full set of copies, only to learn that the copies and negatives were, according to the lawsuit, “collected in person shortly thereafter by Gilbert Lloyd.”
As the charges were filed, they were reported both in the London papers and on the front page ofThe New York Times, without any point-by-point response from Marlborough, whose English lawyers forbade Gilbert Lloyd or anyone else to make any comment other than that the charges would be “robustly” contested.
Since then, Marlborough’s side of the story has come clearer, pieced together from a number of sources.
It’s surprisingly credible.
In the first place, says a Marlborough source, Bacon was represented by two different law firms at the time he signed his 10-year agreement with Marlborough. One was Marlborough’s own solicitor, but the other was hired to help him thwart a possible lawsuit from the Hanover Gallery, which he’d left so abruptly. Marlborough became his dealer but not, says one close observer, his manager: “All Marlborough did was allow Valerie Beston to become Bacon’s secretary because Bacon was so disorganized.”
In any case, the amount paid per painting was fair based on the painter’s market value at that time, say sources, as was the method of paying by measurement. (Picasso, observes one art critic, was paid by a comparable measurement scale by his Paris dealer for years.) When Bacon terminated his agreement with Marlborough after five years, he set his own escalating prices, understanding that the gallery would try to double them or better, to cover its overhead and earn a profit. By 1990, according to a Marlborough source, he was charging the gallery as much as $1.8 million per artwork.
If Marlborough had handled Bacon’s work on a consignment basis, it would have sent him regular financial statements—and paid him a higher percentage when a painting was sold than it did by buying his paintings outright. But Bacon, says someone close to the case, “knew very well what his paintings fetched on the open market.” The estate’s claim that Bacon received as little as 26 percent of his paintings’ retail price is based, says a Marlborough source, on the sale of a 1983 painting entitled Statue & Figures in a Street. This was a deal, though, in which Bacon also received a painting in exchange, says a gallery insider. Usually, says the same source, he received much more—enough so that over time, says a close observer quoting Gilbert Lloyd, the gallery netted only about one-third of its sales prices for Bacon paintings after all its expenses for promoting him.
At first, says the source, the sums paid to Bacon seemed paltry, because the estate knew only about Bacon’s U.K. account. Then the estate learned that Bacon’s work had been sold through Liechtenstein. Marlborough AG invited the estate’s lawyers to come inspect its books, but the lawyers canceled two appointments to do so at the last minute. When a full accounting was subsequently sent to the estate’s lawyers in New York, it was initially returned unopened—because the lawyers realized it would show payments made to Bacon’s Swiss account, which would obligate them to notify the Inland Revenue. “The gallery actually said, ‘You might not want this information,’” says one estate lawyer. Finally, they sent the accounting to the estate’s English lawyers, who did open it—revealing the Swiss account.
In any event, say sources, Bacon was hardly naïve about what Marlborough was making from his artwork, or how his finances were being handled. “There are all kinds of public statements, whether in interviews in the press or television, where Bacon complained about his taxes and talked with a great deal of sophistication,” says one observer. “This guy was no bucolic bumpkin.”
Art critic Brian Sewell agrees. “Francis was no fool. And this idea that he was naïve and being taken for a ride is absolutely idiotic.” Adds another old friend of Bacon’s, “You must never forget about Francis that he earned his money early on by being a croupier at illegal roulette parties. He was very good; and he had to be able to count.”
The shocking charge about the invoice of 1992 becomes an embarrassment to the estate if the gallery’s side of this particular story is true. “Bacon got himself a bit mixed up,” one source says. “He had all of the money—the full £4.2 million— sent to his Swiss account. Then he realized he needed to show some income in the U.K. for those paintings. So he asked for a portion of it to be sent back.” To do that without implicating himself, he had his Swiss banker send £1.6 million back to Marlborough, which then forwarded the £1.6 million to Bacon’s U.K. account.
As for the missing paintings, says a Marlborough source, they have all been identified. In most cases, Bacon gave them away himself—or sold them, which he was allowed to do after his initial agreement was terminated. (“It’s well known,” says biographer Michael Peppiatt, “that Bacon gave paintings to various friends.”) Marlborough, which thus had no record of them, and claims it had no obligation to bother about them, tracked them down anyway. A list provided to the estate—and to Vanity Fair— appears to show all those missing paintings, along with the full prices paid for them, detailing payments made both to Bacon’s U.K. and Swiss accounts. (A lawyer for the estate pronounces the information “not satisfactory.”)
The estate also believes that Marlborough paid Bacon little or nothing for some 3,700 lithographs made of his work over the years. Yet if a list shown to Vanity Fair is accurate, Bacon was indeed paid, on a consistent and proper basis, for the lithographs.
Intimations of a cover-up, on this or any other aspect of the gallery’s dealings with Bacon, says a Marlborough source, are simply groundless. Any documents and photos Beston may have taken from the studio were in the boxes that a lawyer sent to Liechtenstein by mistake, this source explains. Half turned out to contain information pertaining to Bacon, and were handed over to the estate. As for the telltale record book, only a copy of it was sent to Liechtenstein, this source says; the original resides in London. But a copy of it has been made available to the claimants. And Gilbert Lloyd’s personal trip to snatch back photos of Bacon’s paintings, says a source close to the gallery, never happened. (A spokesman for Marlborough confirms this.) Lloyd did have a lawyer advise the photographer who took the pictures that the pictures belonged to Marlborough, and warned him that he’d be dragged into a messy lawsuit if he cooperated with the estate.
Sources close to Marlborough acknowledge that the Rothko case hangs heavily over the Bacon lawsuit, even 25 years later, and puts the gallery on the defensive. But “the gallery has learned its lesson,” one insider says, “I can tell you that.” And so it may have, to judge by two of America’s best-known artists. “I’ve been very happy with them,” Red Grooms says of Marlborough, which he had the nerve to join in 1974, in the heat of the Rothko trial. “The accounting’s very good, very straight, they’re very good at collecting money—which isn’t easy to do, actually—and I get paid. And that’s been consistent.” Larry Rivers, a Marlborough artist for 30 years, concurs. “They’ve always been honest with me,” he says. “Like any two people who stay together a long time we’ve had our disagreements, but it was never about anything where I felt I was being shortchanged. They were always perfect with me.”
All of which leads one to wonder: in a game where every character has his motives, what are Clarke’s and Edwards’s?
“They’re a bunch of cowboys,” says Brian Sewell. “The man who inherited the estate knows nothing about pictures, knows nothing about the market. The executor of the estate, Brian Clarke, is an absolutely lowly artist who has a private war with Marlborough because he thinks he’s marvelous and Marlborough wouldn’t take him on.” Their motives, say two other close observers, are simple. “Money, money, money.”
Clarke in particular does seem to draw his share of disparaging judgments. One prominent American dealer calls him a “ferret.” “Had you ever heard of Brian Clarke or his art,” says one dealer, “before he got the Bacon estate?”
One of Clarke’s supporters, English art critic Edward Lucie Smith, suggests that at core Clarke, like Edwards, is driven by class resentment. “Brian is a tough North Country boy,” says Smith, “and he’s not going to let the Duke [of Beaufort] off the hook.”
Clarke is, in fact, the child of a miner and a cotton-mill worker. “My childhood memories,” he told one British journalist, “are of deprivation, of hardship, damp, mice and cockroaches.” But he scoffs at Smith’s comment. “There’s a certain ill grace in suggesting that a [properly structured] lawsuit is class-motivated,” he says. “It’s too silly for words.”
In the mid-70s, Clarke dove into the London art scene through a chance meeting with Robert Fraser, the glamorous bad-boy dealer who stood at the center of it all. Fraser was famous by then as the handsome, Eton-educated founder of London’s most exciting gallery, the Robert Fraser Gallery, though his fondness for drugs and his utter recklessness with money doomed the venture from the start. In Groovy Bob, a recently published oral biography of Fraser by Harriet Vyner, Clarke recalls favoring clergyman’s clothing at the time. The day he met Fraser, he recalled, “I had on a clerical collar and a leather jacket and tight jeans, and Robert tried to pick me up in the toilets.”
The two became close enough for observers to feel that Clarke was Fraser’s boyfriend, but Clarke denies this. “I would be proud to say I was, but it wouldn’t be true.” In Groovy Bob, he says the relationship was more complex than that. “That night Robert and I left with two boys from the club,” Clarke recounts about an evening at a sleazy Soho club called the Toucan, “and that established a pattern of behavior that was to characterize a particular part of our friendship for the next decade.”
Through Fraser, Clarke met all the characters in the Bacon-estate saga: Edwards, Shafrazi, and Faggionato. Also Paul McCartney, who hired Clarke to design the sets for his 1993 “New World Tour,” and Linda McCartney, who would introduce him to her brother, John Eastman.
In the process, Clarke became what he calls an “architectural” artist, working in stained glass, and began to win large commissions to design abstract creations for corporate clients which ranged from a country club in Japan to an energy company in Kassel, Germany. Before long he became rather wealthy, living in a spacious private house in Kensington called Peel Cottage.
Clarke says he’s taken on his executor duties without fee. “I don’t need any help from the estate,” he says, “and I don’t particularly want it.” But an executor is entitled to charge for expenses, and Clarke is said to travel frequently with Edwards, sparing no expense: for a gallery show of Bacon’s work in Paris, according to a dealer, the two reportedly stayed at the Ritz, with Edwards in a particularly impressive suite. “I know a person who was in it who had never seen a suite this large at the Ritz,” says one person in the Edwards-Clarke circle. “I do travel by first class,” says Clarke. “I’ve done so since 1980. And yes, I’ve stayed in hotel suites for 20 years, too—and expect to continue to do so.”
Nor is an executor forbidden by law to receive gifts—of art, say—for his good work. One visitor to Clarke’s home observed a large Bacon painting on the wall. “That belongs to John [Edwards],” Clarke explained. Still, if Edwards sees fit—and perhaps if the legal action is successful—Clarke could be rewarded with art on which, by law, he would owe no taxes unless he sold it or died within seven years of receiving it. Meanwhile, as one close observer notes, the owner of such a gift could borrow money against it.
Clarke waves off the very suggestion, and says that in fact the case has become a huge obstacle and headache. For starters, he says, “I have an over-20-year relationship with both Shafrazi and Faggionato. I’ve never found them to be anything other than impeccable. And because both were known to Edwards through Fraser, I suggested he speak to them.”
This case, Clarke says emphatically, is not about money. “John Edwards is wealthy enough not to have to worry about financial matters for the rest of his life. So am I. This is about the truth. And it’s about Francis Bacon’s legacy.”
So far, Clarke says, the gallery has “given accounts created retrospectively. They have not answered our questions, they’ve stonewalled us, they’ve moved documentation out of the jurisdiction of English courts. We had to get the courts to order it back.
“When a will is discharged,” Clarke adds, “there are always delays of one sort or another. But in a simple will, a delay of five years is not acceptable. Especially when after that five-year period there was not the slightest hint it would be resolved. We’ve worked very diligently to avoid bringing this case to court. All we wanted was for Marlborough to tell us the truth. If they want the truth as well, they have nothing to fear.”
One way to assess Clarke and Edwards is by how they’ve handled Bacon’s art to date. Several shows of the estate’s holdings—the paintings at Reece Mews when Bacon died, and those found since his death—have been held in Paris, London, and New York. The consensus seems to be that many of the recent works are unfinished, and that most of the rest appear in an early catalogue raisonné as “abandoned” paintings—listed that way by Bacon so that if they surfaced they would not be sold or judged as part of his oeuvre. One London dealer recalls taking on several “abandoned” Bacons in the 1960s, and incurring the painter’s wrath. “I was on the wrong foot with Bacon after that.” An art-world source who attended a Shafrazi show found the paintings “pretty indifferent . . . I think Bacon had every idea that these paintings should have been edited out.”
To one rival dealer, the recent shows suggest an intriguing motive for the estate’s insistence on acquiring a complete list from Marlborough of all of Bacon’s paintings. Clarke has acknowledged wanting to create an updated catalogue raisonné. When that’s done, the matter of which Bacon paintings are or are not “abandoned” can be revisited. The legal, logical arbiter of that will be the estate. If “abandoned” paintings are redefined as part of Bacon’s body of work, their value will rise. Clarke concedes that that would probably make them easier to sell, “but the intellectual value is so exciting that the last thing we want to do is part with any of these pictures.”
Another realm of Bacon’s work in which the estate has made decisions is that of the drawings—genuine or not—which have surfaced since his death, challenging the painter’s oft-stated claim that he went straight to the canvas.
The first lot surfaced courtesy of a South Kensington neighbor of Bacon’s named Barry Joule, who became a friend and helper to the painter after meeting him by chance in 1978. Often, Joule says, Bacon asked him to destroy portraits that failed to meet his standards; Joule would comply by cutting out the faces with a Stanley knife. It was Joule, too, who introduced Bacon to a young Spanish banker in 1988 who became the painter’s last lover. When the banker broke up with Bacon in 1990, the painter was devastated, says Joule, and poured his sorrow into all his last paintings. The hope of reviving that romance was what propelled Bacon to take his ill-fated trip to Madrid in April 1992, even after a collapse and hospitalization, three months before, for a faulty heart valve.
Joule says that when he drove Bacon to the airport that last time, the painter asked him to deal with a cardboard box and a folder that together contained hundreds of drawings, as well as magazine and newspaper images drawn or painted over, and an early self-portrait on canvas. Joule claims his instruction was somewhat cryptic—“You know what to do with it”—but Joule interpreted it to mean he should safeguard the work.
In his art-filled London apartment, the 45-year-old self-described Canadian ex-hippie, his long blond hair cut Sir Galahad style, recalls the furor that greeted his unveiling of the drawings in 1996. “Here was a man who said all his life he never drew—and the people who’d written about him, and particularly [Bacon critic and interviewer] David Sylvester, had followed that line, hook, line, and sinker.” They were embarrassed, Joule feels, because they hadn’t pushed him hard enough in their questions about whether he drew.
The estate responded first with silence, then with lawyers’ letters demanding the trove be returned. In a number of coffee-shop meetings, Joule managed to persuade Clarke that he was, at least, a real friend of Bacon’s. And his avowal that he would give nearly all the drawings to a museum helped assuage Clarke’s suspicions. But a meeting at the Tate Gallery to judge whether the drawings were real ended in keen frustration. Sylvester, who had declared in a lecture upon first hearing of the drawings that they were legitimate, now said that he could not “see Bacon’s hand in them.” Another critic theorized that while much of the material must have come from Bacon’s studio, someone else might have “overpainted” the magazine pictures. Despite enthusiasm for them from more than one of his curators, Nicholas Serota, the Tate’s director, was persuaded to reject the collection.
Bacon biographer Michael Peppiatt, who sat in on the meeting, agrees with Sylvester about the Joule drawings. “They didn’t smell right,” he says. “From everything I knew about Bacon over 30 years, he didn’t need to practice like that, repetitively, before doing a picture. The whole point of the picture was that as far as possible it should be spontaneous. And the idea that he should have kept that huge amount of work, which he didn’t want people to see, then preserved it and given it to Joule—it’s unlikely.”
Yet within months of that meeting, the Tate announced its acquisition of a collection of other Bacon drawings from two old friends of the painter, Paul Danquah and Peter Pollock. The collection is essentially a notebook containing 42 works on paper, yet the Tate bought it for £360,000 ($637,200). Ironically, the collection came through Marlborough, supported by Sylvester and, tacitly at least, by the estate, which appears to need Sylvester as much as he needs it.
More curious still is the estate’s decision to give Bacon’s studio to the Hugh Lane Municipal Gallery in Dublin. In September 1997, John Eastman asked Serota if he would be interested in acquiring the studio as a gift to the Tate if it could be reconstructed as a permanent installation. Serota expressed some interest, but warned that he couldn’t predict how the Tate’s trustees would feel about dedicating a permanent space to it; the museum was having trouble enough finding space for its Bacon paintings. Eastman suggested that Serota view the studio by getting keys from Valerie Beston. But when Serota called her, on more than one occasion, Beston said the keys were with Edwards; she chose not to mention that the estate had begun to disassociate itself from Marlborough, or that she and Edwards were no longer working together.
Rather than approach Serota another time, Clarke and Edwards gave the studio to the Hugh Lane, reasoning that Bacon had been born in Ireland and spent his early years there. To Serota, who heard of the gift only when a newspaper reporter called to ask for his reaction to it, the estate’s behavior was baffling and unfortunate. The Tate clearly lost out on a plum, but to many in the Bacon circle the estate lost, too, because the Tate would have seemed the right place for the studio of a painter who had done nearly all his best-known work in London.
Now that most of the items are logged in on the Hugh Lane gallery’s computerized catalogue, a Bacon fan can amuse himself by typing in the names of Bacon cronies to see how many references to each appear in the studio’s contents. Photographer Peter Beard, a close friend since the mid-1960s, has 254 references. (Bacon, says Michael Peppiatt, gave him a triptych of Beard, just one of the many examples of paintings given by the artist to friends and not sold through Marlborough.) John Edwards has 143, and Lucian Freud 94. But, for Brian Clarke, there are only four references. Along with the photographs and papers, the collection includes 58 slashed canvases—each with a gaping hole where the face once was—and one unfinished self-portrait, the painting found on Bacon’s easel after his death.
A short ride away is the Irish Museum of Modern Art, which looks like a castle with elaborate formal gardens, where an outbuilding is currently given over to the Barry Joule collection, warily subtitled “Works on Paper Attributed to Francis Bacon.” Many of the items are news photographs—boxers, Nazis, cricket players— painted over with hurried brushstrokes. But enough of them do jibe so closely with the studio drawings as to seem of a piece with them. If the estate declares them so, the Tate will look foolish for buying its smaller collection of drawings instead of taking the Joule material for free; so will the panjandrums of the Bacon circle for judging them unpersuasive. But if it calls them fake, it needs some proof, and so far, it appears to have none.
Handling Bacon’s estate is, as it turns out, fraught with tough decisions—none harder than whether or not to push ahead with the lawsuit against Marlborough. The gallery’s strong response will surely give the estate’s lawyers pause. So must a recent verdict in another case against the gallery, brought by the estate of German Dadaist Kurt Schwitters, who died in 1948. In the Schwitters case, Marlborough’s Liechtenstein branch was accused of withholding information about its stewardship of roughly 700 works by Schwitters from the legal guardian for the painter’s stroke-debilitated son. The son, like Rothko and Bacon, had a Swiss bank account. But when the guardian tried to access it, Marlborough moved it to Liechtenstein. The guardian, in turn, terminated Marlborough’s contract with the estate and sued for the return of the artworks. Eventually, Marlborough did surrender the art—but countersued for breach of contract. A lower court in Norway found in the estate’s favor, declaring Marlborough’s conduct “reprehensible.” But a higher court reversed the ruling last March, chastising the gallery for not coughing up information earlier to the estate, but finding that the gallery’s actions did not breach its contract, and awarding it $1.2 million plus court costs.
So Marlborough is powerful, and in the Bacon case it may also be right. If it is, however, that hardly makes it a paragon of virtue. As in the Schwitters case, the gallery is accused of almost extraordinary hubris, failing to communicate with Bacon’s rightful heir, much less giving him a full accounting in a timely fashion. If so, the gallery has brought the suit upon itself. (Marlborough’s lawyers say that the gallery cooperated with the estate’s executors from when the first requests for information were made in 1997, and that charges of hubris are completely unfounded.)
Then, too, even if Bacon was eagerly avoiding English taxes, Marlborough has played the tax game on a grand scale for far too long. “It’s a much bigger question than the Bacon affair,” says one longtime London dealer. “It’s about people using foreign currency to buy art.” And using the art, in turn, to launder their money. “If you take $10,000 into the U.S., you have to declare it,” the dealer explains, “but if you consign a $2 million painting through Liechtenstein, you don’t have to declare it.” The gallery wins, not just by selling its paintings, but by moving art from country to country for tax advantages. “Look at the annual gallery reports,” the dealer says. “You will never see Marlborough appearing in the highest profit or turnover columns,” despite the gallery’s prominence in the London art world. “There’s a pattern,” says the dealer, “of disguising information.” (“Absolutely false,” says one Marlborough lawyer. “It’s just that in London people don’t want to pay the 17.5 percent [value-added tax]. So anyone who wants a Bacon will go find it in New York or Switzerland.”)
Which side, in the case of The Estate of Francis Bacon v. Marlborough Fine Art, is more egregious? One titled English collector seems to sum up the growing consensus. “I don’t think for a moment the Marlborough [directors] are saints—they’re rough and tough—but there are very few artists’ families who don’t feel put out,” he snorts. And in this case, John Edwards has little reason to be. “He’s a wanker,” says the old lord. “He’s bloody lucky to get what he got.”