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Freud ramps up efforts to find Bacon portrait stolen in Berlin

A poster campaign has been launched to recover the work which disappeared from the Neue Nationalgalerie

Berlin is being plastered with “WANTED” posters designed by Lucian Freud in an attempt to recover the Tate’s stolen portrait of Francis Bacon, taken 13 years ago. A reward of up to DM 300,000 (£100,000) is being offered and the hope is that massive international publicity may lead to the recovery of the Freud painting, which was seized from a British Council exhibition in the Neue Nationalgalerie. Although a very private person, Freud is personally backing the campaign because he wants this key work to be shown in his forthcoming retrospective. In his only comment to the press, he posed a polite request: “Would the person who now has possession kindly consider allowing me to show the painting in my exhibition at the Tate next June?”

Freud’s poster has a very simple design. Below the “WANTED” word in red is a black-and-white reproduction of the painting, since Freud does not want it depicted in colour until it is recovered, as a sign of mourning. Below is the main text in German: “For information leading to the recovery of this small painting, a reward of up to DM300,000 is offered. Please telephone +49 30 3110 9940. Calls will be treated in absolute confidence.” Nowhere do the names of Freud or Bacon appear on the poster.

The British Council’s publicity campaign was launched in Berlin on 22 June by visual arts director Andrea Rose, Tate director Sir Nicholas Serota and Peter-Klaus Schuster, director of the Berlin museums (Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz). Posters are being placed on 2,200 sites and on 30 large circular kiosks in the German capital. The considerable cost of these sites and underwriting the reward is being met by two private donors (we understand that originally the scheme was to have been quietly funded by Gilbert de Botton, a former Tate trustee and Bacon collector, but he died last August).

Freud’s portrait of his friend Bacon is a very small work (18 x 13 cm), not much larger than a post card, and, unusually, it is on copper. It was painted in 1952, and was bought later that year by the Tate, making it a far-sighted purchase. The portrait was one of the star exhibits in Freud’s first foreign retrospective, organised by the British Council in 1987-88 and shown at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, the Pompidou Centre in Paris and the Hayward Gallery in London, with Berlin as the final venue.

The Freud was stolen on Friday 27 May 1988 from the Mies van der Rohe-designed Neue Nationalgalerie in Potsdamer Strasse, in what was then West Berlin. It was taken when the gallery was open to visitors. Security that day was virtually non-existent, and we can reveal that between 11 in the morning and four in the afternoon there was not a single guard on duty. This astonishing situation suggests that either the crime was an inside job (with the thief receiving a tip-off) or it was an opportunist theft by a casual visitor who realised that the gallery had been left unguarded. The size of the Bacon portrait made this work particularly vulnerable.

Security at the Neue Nationalgalerie was at that time contracted to an outside firm and the gallery privately admitted liability to the British Council. The theft was briefly reported in the international press, but the Berlin museum, the Tate and the British Council made little effort to publicise the loss, mainly because of the embarrassment of the German side. An immediate decision was made to close the exhibition.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Freudian quest for Bacon'