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Does Elaine Wynn’s reported $142.4 million Francis Bacon art purchase set a new benchmark?


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Elaine Wynn, right, and daughter Gillian on the Andre Agassi Grand Slam red carpet at the Wynn on Saturday, Oct. 9, 2010.

2014 NBT Woman of the Year: Red Carpet

Florence Henderson and Chippendales stars James Davis and Ryan Stuart arrive at Nevada Ballet Theater’s 30th anniversary Black & White Ball honoring Henderson as Woman of the Year on Saturday, Jan. 25, 2014, in Aria. Launch slideshow »

2014 NBT Woman of the Year Florence Henderson

Barry Williams, Florence Henderson and Christopher Knight attend Nevada Ballet Theater’s 30th anniversary Black & White Ball honoring Henderson on Saturday, Jan. 25, 2014, in Aria. Launch slideshow »

Hotel director and Las Vegas socialite Elaine Wynn surprised and stunned guests with her $1 million donation at the 30th Anniversary Nevada Ballet Theater Black & White Ball at Aria on Saturday night, as we reported Sunday.

Two months ago, there was an even bigger shocker when the art world around the globe was sent reeling that one of the world’s most treasured and expensive art pieces had been sold: Francis Bacon’s triptych “Three Studies of Lucian Freud” — for a staggering $142.4 million.

The buyer was not identified, and speculation swirled for weeks that casino giant and art collector Steve Wynn had shelled out the big bucks at the November auction at Christie’s in New York.

However, The New York Times went on record this month reporting that it was not Steve, but his former wife Elaine — they divorced in 2010 — who acquired the masterpiece.

Elaine has neither confirmed the purchase nor talked about it — until now, at the NBT gala. She told me: “The only thing I can say is whoever is lucky enough to have wound up with that picture has got one of the great masterpieces of the 20th century.”

I asked Elaine why it is so incredibly special, such an incredible work of art. “Because in its own right, it is exquisitely magnificent, and it’s very difficult for people to describe why one picture resonates with them over another. Bacon was the ultimate in the time that he was painting, and his relationship with Freud was very similar to the Picasso-Matisse relationship,” she told me.

“They spent every day together, having lunch and dinner for decades. They inspired each other, and it was an intellectual and artistic symbiotic relationship that was quite fascinating in and of itself. Forget the pictures that were created during that time; the relationship between the two men in and of itself is a wonderful story.”

Freud was a German-born English painter widely regarded as the pre-eminent British artist of his time. Born in Berlin in 1922, he died in London in 2011.

I told Elaine that she was so passionate about the painting that it sounded as if she owned it — or wished she could. She responded: “I’ve said it many times, whoever is privileged to own a Francis Bacon is … privileged. Just like we were privileged to own so many other masterpieces. Steve has said it before: We’re only stewards of this art.”

The treasured art piece is on loan anonymously to the Portland Art Museum in Oregon through March 30. Ever pushy, yet still trying to be very polite, I had to ask Elaine if we would ever see it in Las Vegas: “I’m not going to comment,” she said. “Let’s just say that people obviously can go see it in Portland. I think it will be there according to the museum’s published schedule, that it will be there through the end of March.”

Then with a gracious smile and a half-wink, she added: “I’m sure the owner has very good plans for it. I would imagine the owner has figured that out by now.”

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Sheldon Adelson and Elaine Wynn at Buddy V’s Ristorante in Palazzo on Sunday, Oct. 6, 2013.

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Elaine Wynn speaks during a Las Vegas Metro Chamber of Commerce Business Power Luncheon on Wednesday, May 8, 2013, at the Rio.

Click to enlarge photo

Elaine Wynn and Guy Laliberte at the 2013 Keep Memory Alive "Power of Love" Gala celebrating the joint 80th birthdays of Sir Michael Caine and Quincy Jones at MGM Grand Garden Arena on Saturday, April 13, 2013.

The painting was purchased via telephone during a fierce 6-minute November auction, and the final price was much higher than the $85 million Christie’s estimated. Five bidders sent the price sky high in the final moments before the winning bid of $142 million ($127 million for the painting and the additional $$$ for the auction-house commission) clinched the deal.

As auctioneer Juri Pylkkanen’s hammer hit the block, it set a new auction-house record, surpassing Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” sold at Sotheby’s in 2012 for $120 million. Total auction sales that same night grossed $691 million. (For the record, though, Steve Wynn’s 1932 Picasso painting “Le Reve” was sold last year by him for $155 million to hedge-fund billionaire Steven Cohen in New York.)

“Three Studies of Lucian Freud” shows Freud sitting on a wooden chair inside a metal frame set against an orange background. It is one of only two existing Freud triptychs and was highlighted in the artist’s retrospective at the Grand Palais in Paris in 1971.

The New York Times reported that Elaine owns another painting by Bacon, one of her all-time favorite artists born in Ireland in 1909, and over the years has expressed interest in buying his other triptychs. Elaine is a member of the board of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which doesn’t own any Bacon works.

Forbes Magazine quoted online auction-house expert Thomas Galbraith: “ ‘Three Studies of Lucian Freud’ won its place as the world’s most expensive artwork from the intrinsic value of the work itself to the state-of-the-art market. The subject matter is very important for the Bacon market.”

Katherine Markley of Artnet added: “Bacon has a relatively small body of work, not nearly as prolific as someone like Picasso. Only 10 Bacon lots came to auction in 2013.”

Elaine did comment on her $1 million donation to NBT announced by her daughter Gillian, who made a glowing speech at the gala about how her life had been shaped by attending it. Said Elaine: “You heard the impact it made on my children. That was a gift. This was a minimum return on an investment.” Elaine’s other daughter Kevyn joined in the ovation given to her mother for the gift.

An additional $133,000 was donated by guests during KLUC DJ Chet Buchanan’s paddle raise for live music, and auctioneer Christian Kohlberg raised an additional $111,000 during the live portion: a Celine Dion meet-and-greet package sold for $9,000, and tickets in the Founders Box at Smith Center for “Book of Mormon” sold for $5,000. A Venetian high-rollers package sold for $6,500, and Aria chief Bobby Baldwin purchased an at-home dinner for 12 by star chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten for $35,000.

The night honored “Brady Bunch” actress Florence Henderson as Woman of the Year, and daughter Barbara Chase accompanied her at the event. Editor at Large John Katsilometes also reported on the glittering and glamorous event.

Florence told me that during “the good old days,” she regularly performed on Las Vegas stages and had appeared at last year’s AIDS benefit concert at the Smith Center. “I’d love to return there with my own show,” she chuckled.

“What a magnificent night,” she said. “What a wonderful gesture by Elaine Wynn. You couldn’t have asked for anything more, anything bigger, anything better on such a magical evening.”

Robin Leach has been a journalist for more than 50 years and has spent the past decade giving readers the inside scoop on Las Vegas, the world’s premier platinum playground.

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