Is This the Next Auction Supernova? A Rare Modigliani Nude Carries a Record $150 Million Estimate at Sotheby’s

The painting, which was recently on view at Tate Modern, is reportedly owned by Irish billionaire horse breeder John Magnier.

Detail of Amedeo Modigliani, Nu couché (sur le côté gauche) (1917). Courtesy Sotheby's and Tate Modern.

A reclining nude by Amedeo Modigliani is estimated to fetch in the region of $150 million when it hits the block at Sotheby’s this spring. The auction house says it is the highest estimate ever placed on a work of art at auction.

The painting, Nu couché (sur le côté gauche) (1917), has instantly become one of the most buzzed-about lots of the upcoming auction season and is poised to break the current auction record for Modigliani, which stands at $170.4 million.  It will be offered at the house’s evening Impressionist sale in New York on May 14.

Although the artist was prolific—he was just 35 years old when he died of tubercular meningitis in 1920—the painting is one of only five of his nudes ever to come up for auction. (Most are in museum collections.) This one is also the largest work Modigliani ever made, measuring almost 58 inches across.

Amedeo Modigliani, Nu couché (sur le côté gauche) (1917). Courtesy Sotheby's.

Amedeo Modigliani, Nu couché (sur le côté gauche) (1917). Courtesy Sotheby’s.

If the painting looks familiar to some viewers, that’s because it was recently included in Tate Modern’s recent blockbuster exhibition of the artist’s work, which brought together 12 of his nudes, the largest number ever shown in the UK. It graced the cover of the exhibition’s catalogue.

The painting is guaranteed to sell. It carries what is known as an irrevocable bid—a bid placed before the sale by an outside buyer that ensures that the work will sell and diminishes Sotheby’s risk. Its estimate is higher than the priciest works ever sold, including Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi (estimate: in the region of $100 million) and Pablo Picasso’s Les femmes d’Alger (Version ‘O’) (estimate: in the region of $140 million).

The nude is one of a series the artist created for Paris dealer and collector Léopold Zborowski. The paintings caused a scandal when they were exhibited at Modigliani’s first and only solo show at Galerie Berthe Weill in Paris in 1917. A crowd formed outside the gallery window, where one of the nudes was on display. Police demanded the immediate closure of the show.

The painting is likely to eclipse Modigliani’s previous record for Nu couché (1917–18), which was purchased by Chinese taxi driver-turned-billionaire Liu Yiqian at Christie’s New York in 2015.

Considering the most recent record-setting buyer, it is no coincidence that Sotheby’s chose to unveil Nu couché (sur le côté gauche) today in Hong Kong, where the appetite for seven- and eight-figure blue-chip works from wealthy Asian buyers has been adding jet fuel to the high end of the market in recent years.

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

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

Although Sotheby’s has not named the seller, both Bloomberg and the Irish Times have identified him as Irish billionaire horse breeder John Magnier. Bloomberg reports Magnier bought the work in 2003 at Christie’s for $26.9 million. (It carried an estimate of $20–25 million.) It is believed to have been consigned at the time by casino mogul Steve Wynn.

“I always find interesting when the same work re-appears on the market, is its increase in value relative to other works by the same artist and others sold at the same time,” says David Norman, former co-head of Sotheby’s Impressionist department, and now a private dealer.

He notes that in 2004, the year after this painting was sold, Sotheby’s sold the Picasso Boy with Pipe (1905) for a then record $104 million “As this Modigiani is already backed with a guarantee presumably around $150 million,” he says “it has already seen something on the order of a five-fold increase.  Did the Picasso appreciate by the same multiple? Unless thats a $500 million picture today (who knows any more!),  I see this as an indicator that at the very top, Modigliani may have seen a greater percentile increase. Modigliani certainly has caught up!”

To date, more than 1,300 works by Modigliani have come up for auction, according to artnet’s Price Database. The five top works all sold for more than $50 million each, while a total of 13 works have sold for over $20 million.

The painting “reimagines the nude for the Modern era,” Simon Shaw, Sotheby’s worldwide co-head of the Impressionist and modern art department, said in a statement. He called it “an incredibly sensual image, with the sitter’s gaze meeting the viewer’s head-on in truly mesmerizing fashion.”

Before the sale, the painting will go on view in New York on May 4.

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