A $170-Million Modigliani Nude Breaks Records at Christie’s $491 Million ‘Artist’s Muse’ Sale

Records were set for five artists in addition to Modigliani.

Amedeo Modigliani, Nu couché, 1917–18. Courtesy of Christie's New York.

A $170.4-million Modigliani nude topped a solid $491.4-million auction in a packed salesroom at Christie’s New York Monday, becoming the second-highest highest price in auction history. Chinese collector Liu Yiqian won the work via a phone bid. Throughout the evening, the auction house boasted of strong bidding from Asian clients.

In addition to Modigliani, new auction highs were achieved for Balthus, Gustave Courbet, Roy Lichtenstein, and Yoshitomo Nara. Other artists among the night’s top sellers were Paul Gauguin ($31 million for a wood sculpture), Pablo Picasso ($22.6 million for a painting), and Paul Cézanne ($20.9 million for a watercolor).

Seven anonymous phone bidders vied for Amedeo Modigliani‘s Nu Couché (Reclining Nude), 1917–18. The painting presents a startlingly sexual image of a voluptuous, dark-haired, anonymous model. Harried Christie’s staffers were on deck taking the multiple bids, which were fast and furious. After starting the bidding at $75 million, auctioneer Jussi Pylkkanen saw the price rise to the stratospheric presale estimate of $100 million within just fifteen seconds.

Off the market for nearly 30 years in a private collection, the painting far exceeded the previous record for a work by Modigliani, set by Tête (1911–12), a carved stone sculpture that sold for $70.7 million at Sotheby’s New York this past November.

The canvas was painted just a few years before the dissolute artist’s death from tubercular meningitis, and, after his dealer, Léopold Zborowski, it changed hands six times before ending up with the anonymous seller.

The total of the hour-long sale fell within the house’s estimate, between $442 million and $540 million. Fully half the 34 works on offer were guaranteed to sell, as indicated in the hefty promotional catalogue, which spans nearly 500 pages.

But it was a very uneven night. Ten works failed to sell, and of the twenty-four that did, nine hammered below their low estimates.

“Perhaps some of these works were not fresh to the market,” auctioneer Jussi Pylkkanen said at a post-sale press conference, or they were, he said in an unusual admission, “just not good enough.” A New York dealer told artnet News after the sale that though those works may not have been top-notch, there would be a lot of selling going on over the next couple of days.

“It was a tremendous success in terms of raising prices,” Paris dealer Christian Ogier observed after the sale, “but a certain aggressive approach may be nearing its close.” We’re not seeing the frenzied bidding we saw even in May, he added.

Roy Lichtenstein, Nurse (1964). <br>Courtesy of Christie's New York.

Roy Lichtenstein, Nurse (1964).
Courtesy of Christie’s New York.

Coming in second at $95.4 million was Roy Lichtenstein’s Nurse (1964), which had been estimated to bring about $80 million. The price blew past the artist’s previous auction high of $56.1 million, set at Christie’s New York in May 2013 by Woman with Flowered Hat, a 1963 painting of that riffs on Picasso’s Cubist works.

Pylkkanen opened the bidding at $65 million for the Pop painting; it had climbed to $85 million in under fifteen seconds. The canvas, in the artist’s customary Ben-Day dots (in this case hand-painted), shows an anxious nurse, in her white starched cap, a close-cropped version of a comic book image in which the subject overhears a private conversation among her colleagues in the next room. Publishing magnate (and former Art in America owner) Peter Brant sold the work for $1.7 million at Sotheby’s New York in 1995, to the collector who offered it for sale Monday night.

The blockbuster sale was the latest in a series of Christie’s auctions that mix works from various historical categories. “The Artist’s Muse” followed May’s “Looking Forward to the Past” sale, where a Picasso canvas fetched $179.4 million, becoming the world’s priciest auction trophy in a staggering $705.9-million sale. Monday night’s offerings ranged from 19th-century Frenchman Gustave Courbet to Andy Warhol, from Expressionist master Ernst Ludwig Kirchner to Japanese pop artist Yoshitomo Nara.

The sale came at the midpoint of a two-week auction season with more than $2 billion of artworks on offer. It followed an uninspiring $377-million Sotheby’s sale of the estate of the house’s former chairman; a middling $306-million sale of Impressionist and modern art at the same house; and fairly successful sale at Phillips New York on Sunday night, which garnered $67 million while, following Christie’s lead, mixing modern and contemporary.

With the artist’s muse as the theme, two-thirds of the works on offer depict women, many of them, naturally, nude. But the sexy subject matter couldn’t excite buyers enough to snatch up some of the pricier lots, even by iconic artists.

Willem de Kooning, Woman, 1952–53.Courtesy Christie's New York.

Willem de Kooning, Woman (1952–53).
Image: Courtesy of Christie’s New York.

Willem de Kooning’s Woman (ca. 1952–53), for example, shows a Venus of Willendorf–like figure in his typical slashing style. “Beauty becomes petulant to me,” de Kooning is quoted in the catalogue. “I like the grotesque. It’s more joyous.”

Larry Gagosian bought the work in at Sotheby’s New York 1992 for just $440,000 (about $746,000 adjusted for inflation), and sold it the next year to the anonymous collector who brought it to market Monday; it bore an $18-million high estimate, but failed to generate interest and went down in less than a minute.

Lucian Freud, Naked Portrait on a Red Sofa, 1989-1991. Courtesy of Christie's New York.

Lucian Freud, Naked Portrait on a Red Sofa (1989-1991).
Image: Courtesy of Christie’s New York.

Also failing to launch was Lucian Freud’s Naked Portrait on a Red Sofa (1989–91). That work veers into highly ambiguous psychological territory, showing the artist’s daughter Bella, then nearly thirty, her face made grotesque with a thick impasto. The three-foot-square canvas bore a high estimate of $30 million, but went unsold.

Still to come are Christie’s contemporary art sale on Tuesday, Sotheby’s contemporary art sale Wednesday, and Christie’s Impressionist and modern art sale Thursday.

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