Who Stole These Francis Bacon Masterpieces?
The whereabouts of five Francis Bacon paintings, stolen from his former partner’s home in Madrid, remain a mystery.
Last July, five Francis Bacon paintings were stolen from a Spanish banker’s home in central Madrid. Thieves disabled the alarm system before slipping into a fourth floor loft belonging to 59-year-old José Capelo, who was in London at the time. They escaped with roughly $28 million-worth of portraits and landscapes by the late British artist, bequeathed to Capelo when Bacon died.
Neither the doorman nor Capelo’s neighbors noticed anything suspicious the day of the robbery. It was the kind of spotless, silent job romanticized in art heist movies like The Thomas Crown Affair.
Seven months passed before detectives uncovered any substantial information about the robbery. In February, British private investigators passed on an anonymous email with photos of one of the paintings.
When forensic investigators tracked down the camera used to photograph the paintings, they had found a suspect. In late May, Spanish police released a statement confirming that seven people had been arrested in connection with the heist. None of the suspects were named. And none of the paintings were recovered—or even publicly identified.
The case seems to have baffled both local police and international investigators. But that’s because every element of the story is baffling.
How did an aging Spanish banker—not an art collector, nor a fixture in the art world—come to possess five paintings by Francis Bacon, whose Three Studies of Lucian Freud set a $142,405,000 world record at auction in 2013? How did such a sophisticated robbery unravel with such an unsophisticated email, easily traced back to a bumbling crew of thieves?
José Capelo met Francis Bacon in the 1980s at a London party hosted by Sir Frederick Ashton, a choreographer for The Royal Ballet. The two were introduced by Barry Joule, a close friend of Bacon, who was 78 at the time and took a shine to the handsome, 35-year-old Spanish financier.
Capelo was temperamentally different from the other men Bacon had loved—all “brutes,” as he often described them to his longtime friend and biographer, Michael Peppiatt.
In his dishy memoir, Peppiatt recalls the artist happily relaying that Capelo was a refined man: “The marvelous thing is that I usually only find brutes and with José, who speaks every known language, I can talk about all sorts of things.” What luck, then, that Capelo was also “terribly well hung, almost too well hung,” Bacon gushed.
“He was physically infatuated with him,” said Peppiatt, speaking to The Daily Beast from his home in Paris. “And Capelo was fascinated by Bacon's brilliance and aura, but there was a huge age gap between them.”
Peppiatt frequently had lunches with Capelo and Bacon in London at the height of their love affair. He describes feeling like a chaperone on one such occasion, writing in his memoir that he tried to “extricate myself from this tryst, but neither man will accept my bowing out, although that does not stop them from becoming totally absorbed in a lengthy, delicate billing and cooing.”
He’d never seen Bacon fawn over a man as he did over Capelo.
“All the acid that was so present before was suddenly gone from his system,” said Peppiatt. “Being in love [with José] probably wasn't good for his painting. It calmed and tamed him and made him curiously benevolent. He'd always had a benevolent streak, but the characteristic harshness was pacified.”
But Bacon’s advancing age and poor health (he was asthmatic) ultimately deterred Capelo.
“I suppose the whole thing was rather tragic,” Peppiatt said of their romance.
In April 1992, Bacon set off to Madrid in hopes of rekindling things with Capelo, despite his deteriorating health and against his doctor’s orders. Four days after arriving, he was rushed by ambulance to the Clínica Ruber, a medical facility specializing in respiratory dysfunction.
He spent six days in intensive care before suffering a fatal heart attack. No one came to visit him, including Capelo, according to one of the nuns who looked after him. She told Peppiatt that Bacon expressed no desire to see anyone.
Capelo was even less forthcoming.
“There was no way of getting in touch with him,” Peppiatt said, “and I know that even if I had reached him there would have been a blank wall. José is very reluctant to talk about the relationship.”
Indeed, he denied most everything that was said about him and Bacon in a taped conversation between the artist and Barry Joule, in which Bacon said he bequeathed $4 million to Capelo in his will (Joule leaked their chat to the London Sunday Times in 2014, claiming Bacon gave him permission to publicize the tapes after his death).
In 2013, a 1987 painting titled “Portrait of José Capelo” went up for sale at a blue-chip Swiss gallery. Capelo also posed for a 1991 triptych that is housed in New York’s Museum of Modern Art, though Bacon told Joule that Capelo asked him to paint over his face.
Speaking to the Times, Capelo insisted that these conversations were “full of inaccuracies and full of things that are not true.”
He insisted that he “has never had any inclination to profit from that,” referring to his relationship with Bacon. “Why should I do it now? I don’t want to be a part of that.”
As for Joule’s claims, Capelo declined to comment beyond stating: “I don’t have that much respect for his opinion and his approach and his views...I think I have a right to my privacy and I want to keep it that way.”
Two years after Bacon died in Madrid, Capelo bought the apartment that was looted last July, according to El Pais.
Much has been written about the self-destructive sadists and thugs Bacon was drawn to—namely, Peter Lacy and George Dyer, both of whom committed suicide. They were brooding, brutish muses who manifested in the raw, “grotesque” imagery that characterized Bacon’s work.
Yet we know little about the artist’s last serious lover. Had Bacon met with Capelo in Madrid before he was rushed to the clinic? Why did Capelo not visit him at his death bed? Was he simply respecting Bacon’s wishes, as the nuns who took care of him suggested? (Capelo could not be reached for comment for this article.)
In the wake of the robbery, their relationship is perhaps more shrouded in mystery than ever. Capelo himself has become a source of intrigue.
It’s tempting to read into his strident declarations about not wishing to “profit” from their relationship. Was this a subtle dig at Bacon’s former lover John Edwards, who was in charge of the late artist’s estate after Bacon died (Edwards himself died in 2003)? Or a genuine sentiment from a pathologically private man?
The National Police in Spain could not be reached for comment on the ongoing investigation. Nor did the Bacon estate return repeated requests for comment about the five stolen paintings.
Their collective worth may seem insignificant compared to what Bacon’s other works have fetched at auction. But most of us care less about the numbers than the untold stories behind these paintings. And if Capelo has any say in the matter, those stories likely won’t be exposed any time soon.