LONDON (Reuters) - A female nude painted by Francis Bacon in 1963 will lead Christie's London auction of post-war and contemporary art on February 14, where it is expected to fetch around 18 million pounds ($28 million).
"Portrait of Henrietta Moraes" depicts Bacon's friend and former lover of Lucian Freud in a large, vibrant work which Francis Outred, head of post-war and contemporary art in Europe, called "one of the most seductive and sexually charged paintings I have ever encountered by Bacon."
Bacon's depictions of "bon vivant" and London socialite Moraes were his first to seriously consider the female form, although he is most often associated with the male nude.
Art critic David Sylvester once said: "Bacon's lack of personal erotic interest in naked females did nothing to prevent these paintings from being as passionate as those of the male bodies that obsessed him."
The artist never painted his subjects from life, and so asked photographer John Deakin to take a series of pictures from which he could work.
Christie's said the work, which measures more than five feet high, had only ever had two owners -- post-war industrialist Willy Schniewind and the present owner who acquired it in 1983.
The seller was not named, and only identified as a "distinguished New Yorker."
1963 is considered an important year for Bacon, whose works have become coveted by some of the world's wealthiest collectors willing to part with fortunes to own them.
The auction record for a Bacon stands at $86.3 million set at Sotheby's in New York in May 2008 for a triptych.
Bacon returned to Moraes as a subject for numerous works over the course of his career. Christie's linked the "striking passion" of the painting on offer with the artist's own personal life.
It was executed at the time Bacon was embarking on a stormy love affair with George Dyer, who became an important subject of his works during his lifetime and after his death from an overdose in 1971.
The price tag on the Bacon underlines confidence in the art market that important works which rarely come under the hammer will fetch high prices despite broader economic concerns.
Reporting by Mike Collett-White, editing by Paul Casciato