Bacon Estate alleges artist was blackmailed by Marlborough

Potentially key witnesses, David Sylvester, Gilbert de Botton and Gilbert Lloyd, are all dead


The Francis Bacon Estate’s legal claim against Marlborough Fine Art has taken a new twist, with allegations of blackmail. Bacon is said to have decided to leave Marlborough to move to the Pace gallery (now Pace Wildenstein), but changed his mind after being warned that he might then have problems with the UK tax authorities and in getting access to money paid through Liechtenstein into his Swiss bank accounts.

On 20 November the High Court in London ruled that the blackmail claim could be incorporated into the estate’s case, which will come to trial in February. Mr Justice Patten pointed out that his duty was to filter out “hopeless claims”, but the new allegation “does not fall into that category.” The judge stressed that this “does not mean that it will succeed or that I have formed any view at all as to its truth.”

Although the extent of the estate’s claim has not been calculated, it could well amount to more than £100 million. When Bacon died in 1992, he left his assets to John Edwards, a former East London barman who now lives in Thailand. The sole executor is Professor Brian Clarke, who believes that Bacon was not paid properly by his long-time dealer for many of his pictures. Professor Clarke is therefore taking legal action against Marlborough Fine Art (London) Ltd and Liechtenstein-registered Marlborough International Fine Art Establishment (see The Art Newspaper, No.115, June 2001, p.6).

Dinner at Claridge’s

The alleged blackmail by Marlborough dates back to March 1978, when Bacon tried to switch galleries in order to boost his earnings. Respected art historian Michael Peppiatt, a close friend of Bacon, told Arnold Glimcher, the chairman of Pace in New York, that the artist was “unhappy” with Marlborough, his established dealer. Mr Glimcher then flew over to London, meeting Bacon and Mr Peppiatt for dinner at Claridge’s on 2 March. Bacon wanted £50,000 per large single panel painting, and Mr Glimcher made an offer (there is now some confusion now over whether the 50,000 offer was in sterling or dollars). A further meeting was held at Claridge’s the following day.

Between 4 and 8 March, Bacon approached Marlborough owner Frank Lloyd and told him of his decision to move to Pace. The estate alleges that Mr Lloyd “placed undue pressure on Bacon to remain with Marlborough”, by threatening that if the artist left his gallery then (a) “Bacon would have problems obtaining access to the funds belonging to him which Marlborough had paid into Bacon’s bank accounts in Switzerland” and (b) “Bacon would be exposed to the English tax authorities.”

Mr Glimcher provided a statement on 1 November 2001, giving details of the conversations at Claridge’s: “Bacon and I seemed to have an immediate rapport. By the end of the second meeting, we had reached an agreement on which we shook hands.” But on 8 March 1978 Mr Glimcher was devastated to receive a letter from Bacon saying that he had decided to remain with Marlborough. In retrospect, Mr Glimcher believes that his source of information about what had occurred was probably Mr Peppiatt.

Mr Peppiatt and his wife Jill Lloyd had a meeting with the estate in June 2000 to discuss the possibility of compiling a catalogue raisonné of Bacon’s work. Mr Justice Patten recorded: “I am told that this is likely to be a lucrative and prestigious project and these discussions are relied upon by Mr Lyndon-Stanford [Marlborough’s QC] as giving his clients additional concern that Mr Peppiatt’s independence as a witness may thereby have been compromised.” Marlborough has since stressed to The Art Newspaper that it has never objected to Mr Peppiatt’s writing the catalogue, describing him as “by far the best qualified person to do so.”

Rothko link

Marlborough’s lawyers have pointed out that Mr Glimcher “is in competition with Marlborough in New York and acted for the Rothko Estate in connection with its dispute with Marlborough in the 1970s”. This was a legal row which has some parallels with the current case between the Bacon Estate and Marlborough. The gallery therefore does not regard Mr Glimcher as “in any sense an independent witness.”

It was also argued by Marlborough that had the blackmail claim been made at an earlier stage in the proceedings, it would have been possible to have discussed the matter with two of Bacon’s close associates, art historian David Sylvester (who died on 19 June 2001) and financier Gilbert de Botton (who died on 27 August 2000). Mr Lloyd, the key witness, died in 1998. Marlborough concludes that it “does not know why Bacon changed his mind [over the move to Pace, but would invite the court to infer that it was in his best interests to continue to work with Marlborough.” Last month a gallery spokesman told The Art Newspaper that “in relation to the allegation of blackmail, Marlborough rejects it entirely.”