A painting of a nude woman reclining languorously on a red sofa has fetched a record-breaking $170.4m (£113m) at auction in New York last night (Monday 9 November).
Amedeo Modigliani’s ‘Nu couché’ (1917-18), which caused a scandal when it was first exhibited in Paris, was sold at Christie’s as part of an ‘Artist’s Muse’ themed auction. The seller is Laura Mattioli Rossi, daughter of Italian collector Gianni Mattioli. Six bidders fought a tense battle for the work, which saw the opening bid of $75m rise to the guaranteed $100m minimum price in just 15 seconds.
It was sold in a total of nine minutes to the Chinese collector and billionaire Liu Yiqian and his wife Wang Wei who bid via telephone. Their collection is housed in Shanghai’s Long Museum, which was founded for the purpose. Mr Lieu sparked controversy in July this year after drinking tea from a 500-year-old ceramic bowl, which he bought at auction for $36m and once belonged to a Chinese emperor.
Mr Liu reportedly explained the reasoning behind their latest acquisition to the Wall Street Journal:
“Our museum is just two to three years old and currently houses mostly Chinese traditional culture… This is a great opportunity for us to collect a world masterpiece and will bring our museum to a new era”
Christie’s specialist in postwar and contemporary art Ana Maria Celis provided some indication as to why the painting drove bidders into such a frenzy:
“This painting leaps off the page as the most vibrant, sexual, lyrical of the catalogue raisonné”.
The sale is a posthumous coup for the artist who met with little success during his very short lifetime (he died aged 35 of tuberculosis). It is the second-highest price paid for an artwork at auction. Pablo Picasso’s ‘Women of Algiers (Version O)’, which sold for $179.4m (£115m) at Christie’s New York in May still occupies the top spot.
It is the tenth artwork to reach a nine-figure sale price and the latest to to enter the $100 Million at Auction Club – joining the likes of Picasso (three times), Edvard Munch and Andy Warhol. The sale also breaks the record for a Modigliani. This was previously set at $70.7m for a carved stone sculpture ‘Tête’ (1911-12), which sold at Sotheby’s New York in November 2014.
The NY Times reports that Christie’s have been relying heavily on guaranteeing minimum prices in its auction sales. According to artnet News, half the 34 works in the ‘Artist’s Muse’ sale – including ‘Nu Couché’ – were guaranteed to sell. However, only 71% of lots sold. While risky, the practice of guaranteeing is said to be instrumental to encouraging owners to consign their masterpieces for sale.
New York-based collector and adviser David Nisinson does not foresee an end to the practice:
“These sales have a logic to them, and they’ve been a success… If they continue to attract very major property we may see more sales with this approach.”
Christie’s auctioneer Jussi Pylkkanen was equally unperturbed by the failed sales:
“If they’d all sold we wouldn’t be pushing the envelope”.
The NY Times suggests the more conventional Christie’s sale reflects investor concern over a perceived bubble in the contemporary art market. This has led to increased interest in blue-chip names from earlier periods.
Christie’s worldwide chairman of postwar and contemporary art, Brett Gorvy, reflected on the sale:
“This demonstrates a very dynamic market for the Masterpiece level… The mood is about confidence… There’s more than enough liquidity in the market.”
Sales on the night totalled $491.4m with fashion designer Valentino and philanthropist Eli Broad among those in attendance.
Watch out for a forthcoming expert post on auction guarantees from our Art Law team…