The Courtauld Institute and the Francis Bacon Estate discuss disputed Bacon drawings

A Courtauld conference will investigate works on paper said to be by the artist. Owner’s side to offer legal immunity


More than 600 controversial and disputed drawings, said to be by Francis Bacon, which the artist gave to an Italian lover, will be discussed next month at an open forum at London’s Courtauld Institute, organised jointly with the catalogue raisonné project set up by the Francis Bacon estate.

The 25 January seminar will be the first gathering of scholars to debate the authenticity of these unusual drawings. Among those invited is Cristiano Ravarino, who was Bacon’s lover, as well as specialists from the Tate and Dublin’s Hugh Lane Gallery (which displays Bacon’s reconstructed studio). It is expected that some of the drawings will be available for inspection.

The Bacon estate says the Italian works can at best be described as “attributed to” the artist. However, Ravarino’s lawyer suggests that it could be libellous to describe them as such, and they should be categorised as “by” the artist. In 2004 an Italian court ruled that “no one can say that Francis Bacon’s drawings owned by Cristiano Ravarino are fakes”, but neither did it say they were authentic.

These terminological differences have made it legally difficult for art historians even to discuss the question of their authenticity. However, for the London seminar, Bologna-based lawyer Umberto Guerini is offering “a guarantee that nobody will run any legal risk”—although this does not preclude other parties taking action.

Last month the Bacon estate referred our queries to the editor of its catalogue raisonné, Martin Harrison. He stated that “the so-called Italian drawings are unlike any authenticated Bacon works that I know.”

The Italian drawings began to emerge on the market in the 1990s. A legal case was later brought against Ravarino in Bologna, and in 2004 judge Norberto Lenzi cleared him of all charges over the sale of Bacon drawings. Key evidence was given by a graphologist, who verified the signatures as authentic, although “most likely to have been signed while under the influence of alcohol”.

So far the drawings have been accepted by a number of Italian art historians, but most notably by Rome-based Raffaele Gavarro, as well as London-based Edward Lucie-Smith. Alberto Agazzani, who previously authenticated the works exhibited in Venice in 2009, now says these are “likely to be attributed to Bacon”, but other drawings are “suspect” and he no longer wishes to be linked to them.

None of the leading Bacon specialists has accepted the drawings. One of Bacon’s biographers Michal Peppiatt says that “their style leaves me unconvinced of their authenticity”.

Lying behind the emergence of the works is the question of whether Bacon drew, since he denied it (except in one interview with David Sylvester). As Lucie-Smith says: “What you are dealing with often resembles a religious controversy far more than it does a conventional art historical one. For many Bacon hangers-on and groupies, to say that the artist drew is a challenge to faith.”

Since Bacon’s death in 1992, several completely separate Bacon groups of works on paper have emerged in Britain, including the Barry Joule collection, which was donated to the Tate in 2004. So far, however, the works now generally accepted by Bacon scholars are relatively small in size, and are sketches, often very rough and done over printed or photographic images.

The Italian drawings, by contrast, are finished, independent works, some up to 1.5m by 1m, and are signed. They include highly coloured, mixed-media works related to the themes of some of Bacon’s most iconic paintings, such as those after Velázquez’s portrait of Pope Innocent X and crucifixions.

Altogether 150 drawings were sold before the 2004 Bologna case and a dozen since then, according to Guerini. During the past three years a series of exhibitions has been held. The first was in 2009, during the Venice Biennale, at the Palazzo Ca’ Zenobio degli Armeni, called “The Tip of an Iceberg”. Subsequent shows have been held in Zurich, Milan, Buenos Aires, Evora (Portugal) and Cento (near Ferrara). Last summer the works were shown at a gallery in Venice’s Piazza San Marco.

Most recently, drawings were presented at two commercial galleries in Berlin, the Werkstattgalerie and Galleria Nove. The works are currently on the websites of the two galleries, “attributed to” Bacon.

Earlier this year Guerini helped establish the Francis Bacon Drawing Foundation in London. This led to complaints from the Bacon estate, which ordered him to desist from using the artist’s name in this way.

Guerini is now planning two projects. He wants to arrange the first major exhibition of the drawings in London. Further exhibitions are being planned next year in Bogota, Prague, São Paulo, and possibly Saint Etienne and Taipei.

The other venture is a complete catalogue of the Italian drawings, which is being planned in four volumes. Guerini optimistically says that the first volume, with around 150 works, will be published in January. However, Lucie-Smith, who is its editor, says that he has not yet seen all the drawings or started writing his introductory essay.

In a further twist, last year Ravarino said that he had just found “some very rare and unpublished photographs of Hitler and Mussolini (obviously original prints) that Francis Bacon, during one of our encounters, had forgotten to ask me to return”.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Are these drawings really by Francis Bacon?'