It is one of the art world’s great unsolved mysteries – the daring theft of Lucian Freud’s portrait of fellow artist Francis Bacon.
The masterpiece, Portrait Of Francis Bacon, disappeared without trace after it was removed from its wire frame and spirited out of Berlin‘s National Gallery 30 years ago.
But The Mail on Sunday can reveal that Bacon received a ransom demand a year later in 1989 and was apparently poised to recover the work – only for the operation to be wrecked by a police blunder.
Portrait Of Francis Bacon was spirited out of Berlin’s National Gallery 30 years ago. Pictured: Francis Bacon and Lucien Freud
Barry Joule, Bacon’s close friend and neighbour in London’s South Kensington, has now revealed that the artist received a phone call in his studio from ‘a tough-sounding East End man, probably an associate of the Krays’.
During the 1960s, Bacon fraternised with gangsters, among them Ronnie Kray.
Joule recalls: ‘[The gangster] told him, ‘If you want to get yer face picture back, get £100K together and wait by the phone for a call at noon exactly.’ ‘
Francis called Joule who drove his black Porsche to pick up Bacon from his studio and take him to his flat. Even though he didn’t own the painting, Bacon then panicked and stuffed £140,000 into a satchel, reappearing ‘sweating and nervous’.
They argued over whether to contact police but Bacon was ‘dead set against doing that’ because he still felt aggrieved by a 1968 drugs bust involving his then lover, George Dyer.
People look towards the wild west-style wanted poster showing the reward for the return of the portrait of the late British artist Francis Bacon in downtown Berlin June in 2001
Instead he alerted the head of security at the Tate gallery, which had bought the picture in 1952 from Freud and had loaned it to the German museum in 1988 when it was stolen.
Then they went back to the studio to await the noon call, but it never came. Leaving the studio several hours later the two men spotted ‘three undercover policemen’ in a Ford Fiesta. Joule said they all had their ‘heads buried in newspapers’.
Convinced the gangsters must also have spotted them, Bacon shouted angrily at the officers.
For weeks afterwards, Bacon ‘remained paranoid that the Krays and associates would be ‘out to get me for grassing to the police’,’ said Joule, who added: ‘If it wasn’t for policemen sitting in their car right outside the building, Francis might have got the stolen painting back.’ In a recorded interview with Joule three months after the ransom blunder, Bacon spoke of ‘how much the police have gone down in my estimation’.
Bacon (pictured) ‘remained paranoid that the Krays and associates would be ‘out to get me for grassing to the police’
The 7in x 5in oil on copper was one of the few Freud paintings Bacon really liked, so much so he kept a photograph of it in his kitchen.
Freud later plastered Berlin with ‘Wanted’ posters of the image, offering a £100,000 reward for its recovery so he could include it in a retrospective of his work.
Although the Tate has never claimed the insurance money, because it has hoped to be reunited with the painting, Bacon, who died in 1992, was more pessimistic. ‘Most likely it was burnt,’ he says on the recording.
The Tate continues to list the painting in its catalogue, simply noting ‘not on display’.
In 2004, Joule gave the Tate 1,200 Bacon sketches. They were then valued at about £20million.
He kept about 120 sketches, and he is lending some to an exhibition in Italy, at the Foundation Sorrento museum, in Sorrento, which opens today and runs until October 21.