Contemporary Art

The Astrup Fearnley Museet and a Legacy of Masterful Collecting

New York

F rancis Bacon’s large-format Triptych Inspired by the Oresteia of Aeschylus will highlight Sotheby's Contemporary Art Evening Auction in New York this June, when it will be offered with an estimate in excess of $60 million. This masterpiece comes to Sotheby's having been in the care of the Astrup Fearnley Museet in Oslo, Norway, a celebrated and pioneering private museum of Contemporary art.

Francis Bacon, Triptych Inspired by the Oresteia of Aeschylus, 1981. Estimate $60,000,000 – 80,000,000.


Founded by Hans Rasmus Astrup in 1993, the Astrup Fearnley Museet in Oslo was one of the first and remains one of the greatest private museums dedicated to Contemporary Art in Europe. Like the Boros Collection in Berlin, the Museum Brandhorst in Munich, the Fondazione Prada in Italy and the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris, the Astrup Fearnley Museet has revolutionized the access to and appreciation of Contemporary Art in its home city. Until 1990 there were no museums in Norway that were dedicated to the art of the present, and, alongside the National Museum of Contemporary Art the Astrup Fearnley Museet, performed an imperative service in exposing the Norwegian public to the radical art of that time. Full-scale exhibitions of major international artists such as Robert Gober, Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst and Charles Ray were housed in the museum’s galleries, and simultaneously, collaborative projects with curators and international museums were launched, which saw exhibitions travel across the globe. The museum has also provided a significant platform for living Norwegian artists, with major exhibitions of artists such as Matias Faldbakken, Odd Nerdrum, Bjarne Melgaard, Marianne Heske and Fredrik Vaerslev generating significant international exposure for the country’s thriving artistic community. The sale of this work will ensure the long term support of the Astrup Fearnley Museet and provide significant funding to further support and diversify the collection through future acquisitions.

The Astrup Fearnley Museet, Oslo, Norway

The collection assembled by Hans Rasmus Astrup articulates the story of Contemporary Art by focusing on individual artists who capture the zeitgeist of their respective periods. Wide ranging in its scope and unbound by geographical constraints, the roster of artists represented in the collection reflects the global nature of Contemporary Art, and the collection is further distinguished by its remarkable faith in the artists it has championed, buying works in depth to better illustrate the trajectory and variety of their output. Masterpieces by Jeff Koons, Cindy Sherman and Richard Prince that ape or embrace the consumerist wonts of American capitalist society dovetail with elegiac sculptures by Felix Gonzalez-Torres and Robert Gober that lament the failure of American society to adequately respond to the humanitarian crisis triggered by the AIDS epidemic. Topographical expanses that map the geopolitical complexities of US cities by Mark Bradford and Julie Mehretu are shown alongside imaginary worlds created by Matthew Barney and Cao Fei, whose installations bring about a collision of reality and fantasy to alleviate the strictures imposed by urban spaces. A vast installation work by Anselm Kiefer, rife with historical allusion and burdened with the knowledge of Germany’s history and guilt, is juxtaposed with photographs by Wolfgang Tillmans, whose images celebrate the diversity and freedom now afforded the citizens of that country.

The museum was built as part of Tjuvholmen Icon Complex (2006-2012) and was designed by Renzo Piano Building Workshop in collaboration with Narud-Stokke-Wiig.

This is a collection that embraces the radical, and lives on the cutting edge of contemporary production. Works that are now considered to be of canonical importance, such as Damien Hirst’s Mother and Child Divided, which crowns the museum’s spectacular collection of works by the Young British Artists (YBAs), were acquired immediately after their production, before the lens of critical history had time to settle upon their importance. Others were purchased later but still far in advance of the market – for instance, Michael Jackson with Bubbles from 1988, one of Jeff Koons’ greatest works, with other examples from the edition housed at the Broad in Los Angeles and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, was purchased at auction in 2001 for more than triple the previous record for the artist, at the time the highest price ever paid for a work made after 1985. Speaking about his patron’s approach to collecting, Damien Hirst observed: “He was buying art because he loves it and still does… he bought really good things, bought them wisely and bought them because he loves them… When I was making the formaldehyde works, they were big pieces to buy, a big commitment, and he buys it without knowing where it’s going to go or how you transport it… It’s a rare breed that kind of person, you don’t meet many like that today… He’s always bought things, always displayed them; he’s like an artist’s dream as a collector.” (Damien Hirst, “Damien Hirst on Hans Rasmus Astrup," NRK, 15 October 2018)

“[Hans Rasmus Astrup] was buying art because he loves it and still does… he bought really good things, bought them wisely and bought them because he loves them…
Damien Hirst, "Damien Hirst on Hans Rasmus Astrup," NRK, 15 October 2018

The bravery and vision of the museum’s acquisitions over the last 30 years are what define it. The masterful Francis Bacon triptych that Sotheby’s is honored to present was bought only a few years after it was painted, before the reputation of the late works had been cemented, and a similar story can be told with a number of works in the collection. Indeed, many artists have the museum to thank for kick-starting their careers. For instance, the 2005 exhibition Uncertain States of America, which subsequently traveled throughout Europe, introduced the museum-going public to many names that have since become familiar refrains for institutions and collectors alike, such as Josh Smith, Jordan Wolfson, Matthew Day Jackson, Seth Price and Frank Benson. So consistent is this foresight that one would do well to look at the works currently being acquired by the museum to predict the axes on which critical opinion will pivot in the future, and given that, it is interesting to note the proliferation of new media projects that characterize many of the collection’s recent acquisitions, as well as the increased emphasis on works by Asian Contemporary artists. Works by Korakrit Arunanondchai, Lizzie Fitch & Ryan Trecartin, Cao Fei and Helen Marten abound, and are among the best-liked of the newer additions to the collection, which, since its move from the very center of the city into a specifically designed Renzo Piano building on the shoreline in 2012, has become one of the most popular destinations for art lovers in Norway.

“Hans Rasmus Astrup is much more daring than many collectors. He has never wavered in the face of artworks that have proved challenging."
Sune Nordgren, 'Let’s Talk Art. A History of Astrup Fearnley Museet'

Francis Bacon’s Triptych Inspired by the Oresteia of Aeschylus was an early work to accede to the collection and is part of a group of Post-War British artworks, including paintings by Ron Kitaj and David Hockney, that provide a catalyst for the more contemporary elements of the collection. The company that owned the work was donated by Hans Rasmus Astrup to a Foundation in his name in 2013, and proceeds from the sale of the work will allow for the expansion and diversification of the ever-evolving collection housed therein. Such expansions are entirely in keeping with the museum's character. As Sune Nordgren, the former director of the National Museum for Art, Architecture and Design in Oslo describes, “Hans Rasmus Astrup is much more daring than many collectors. He has never wavered in the face of artworks that have proved challenging… intellectually and physically provocative works by some of the world’s most creative artists.” (Sune Nordgren, Let’s Talk Art. A History of Astrup Fearnley Museet) The sale of Triptych Inspired by the Oresteia of Aeschylus is thus a historic moment that represents not only an opportunity to acquire one of the great Contemporary artworks remaining in private hands, but the ability to ensure the continuation of this proud history of education and patronage.

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