Francis Bacon's Study for Self Portrait No. 1 from 1964. The Weiss family are suing Christie's, citing the auction house's withdrawal of a $40m guarantee on the picture in a breach-of-contract claim.

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The complaint, filed by the Connecticut collector George A. Weiss with the United States Southern District Court of New York on April 3, details the remarkable deals available to owners of major works of art.

As reported in ATG No 1886, April 18, the complaint contends that during the consignment process in July 2008, Sotheby's and Christie's made competing offers to sell Francis Bacon's 1964 Study for Self Portrait No. 1.

Christie's sent in their biggest guns to win the picture: honorary chairman Christopher Burge, president Marc Porter, and top 20th century picture specialists Laura Paulson, Brett Gorvy and Guy Bennett. They proposed two options. Option one comprised a $40million guaranteed minimum price to the seller, plus 103 per cent of the hammer price should the picture sell for more than $40m. In the event that the picture brought over $50m this 'enhanced hammer premium' would cease and any further proceeds would be split 90-10 between the seller and the auctioneer.

The more straightforward option two offered the seller 108 per cent of the sale price (Christie's would make their money on only a portion of the buyer's premium) but gave no minimum price guarantee.

Christie's took delivery of the painting after Weiss had chosen their offer of a $40m guarantee with additional monies should bidding go higher.

The complaint says the final version of the contract was delivered to Christie's on September 23 but that the next day Christie's informed the Weiss Family Art Trust that the $40 million guarantee could not be honoured because of the changed climate of the art market.

When the Bacon was offered at Christie's Post War and Contemporary Art sale in New York last November it failed to sell.

The trust claims that "Christie's reneged upon the minimum price guarantee" and is suing for the $40m it says it was promised, plus interest. A statement from Christie's stated: "Christie's has much respect for Mr. Weiss as a collector, philanthropist and businessman. Unfortunately, we disagree with his position in this litigation."

By Roland Arkell