In an overheated art market where anything seems possible, a painting of an outstretched nude woman by the early-20th-century artist Amedeo Modigliani sold on Monday night for $170.4 million with fees to Liu Yiqian, a former taxi driver turned billionaire art collector, in a packed sales room at Christie’s. It was the second-highest price paid for an artwork at auction.
The painting became the 10th work of art to reach nine figures under the hammer. The bidding was palpably tense, with six people vying for the lot, and it took nine minutes to sell, with the winning bid coming from the phone. Mr. Liu, who with his wife Wang Wei is among China’s most visible art collectors, confirmed on Tuesday that he is the buyer. He said he planned to bring the work back to Shanghai, where he and his wife have two private museums.
The seller of the Modigliani, Laura Mattioli Rossi, the daughter of the Italian collector Gianni Mattioli, was guaranteed at least a $100 million minimum price. Just before the sale, Christie’s announced that a third party had stepped forward to share the risk — as well as any proceeds above the guaranteed price. The night’s sale of 34 lots brought $491.4 million.
An arresting pop art work by Roy Lichtenstein, “Nurse,” from 1964, also defied expectations, selling for $95.4 million, with fees, to another phone buyer, well above its $80 million estimate — despite the lack of a “speech” or “thought bubble” that typically drives up the price of Lichtenstein works. “Nurse” reached a new price level for Lichtenstein at auction. Christie’s also shared that guarantee with a third party.
But it was Modigliani’s 1917-18 canvas, “Nu Couché,” that was the star lot around which Christie’s built its themed “Artist’s Muse” auction, designed to attract international buyers of the world’s most expensive art. With some collectors concerned about a bubble in the market for so-called cutting edge contemporary art, investment-conscious buyers have been looking for blue-chip names from earlier periods. Modigliani nudes are regarded as among the ultimate trophy paintings of the 20th century.
The price was a high for Modigliani at auction, beating the $70.7 million paid in New York last November for his 1911-12 sculpture “Tête.” His “Portrait de Paulette Jourdain,” from around 1919, sold for $42.8 million at Sotheby’s sale of the A. Alfred Taubman estate last week, well over its estimate of $25 million.
Among the notable collectors and celebrities at Christie’s were the fashion designer Valentino (“I came as a spectator,” he said) and Eli Broad, the philanthropist.
The New York collector Peter Brant pronounced the sale “really strong,” adding: “They curated it and they did a good job. Some of the prices were very high.”
Monday’s sale assuaged concerns that the Modigliani painting would be too risqué for some collectors.
“This painting leaps off the page as the most vibrant, sexual, lyrical of the catalogue raisonné,” said Ana Maria Celis, a Christie’s specialist in postwar and contemporary art.
The sale propelled Modigliani into the $100 Million at Auction Club, whose members include Picasso (three times), Bacon, Giacometti (three times), Warhol and Munch. It also represented a far cry from the prices being asked for the Italian artist’s work in his own brief and unsuccessful lifetime (he died of tuberculosis in 1920 at age 35).
In the winter of 1918-19, a desperate Modigliani offered to sell the entire contents of his Paris studio — which may well have included Christie’s “Nu Couché” — to the British writers Osbert and Sacheverell Sitwell, for 100 pounds, or $300 (roughly $4,700 today). According to John Pearson’s 1978 book, “Facades: Edith, Osbert, and Sacheverell Sitwell,” the aristocratic brothers could not raise the cash.
Christie’s “Artist’s Muse” sale was a more conventional follow-up to the company’s unorthodox “Looking Forward to the Past” auction in May, with offerings handpicked by the young Christie’s specialist Loic Gouzer. That sale brought $705.9 million from 35 lots, including $179.4 million for Picasso’s 1955 painting, “Les Femmes d’Alger (Version ‘O’).” In that sale, 97 percent of the lots sold, compared with 71 percent at Monday night’s sale.
But Brett Gorvy, Christie’s worldwide chairman of postwar and contemporary art, said he was very satisfied with the results, and especially with the “very strong Asian participation throughout the sale,” adding, “This demonstrates a very dynamic market for the Masterpiece level.”
“The mood is about confidence,” he said. “There’s more than enough liquidity in the market.”
Both of the themed auctions have relied heavily on Christie’s guaranteeing minimum prices to coax top-quality works from owners, an increasingly common but risky practice that can leave auction houses with expensive unsold works.
“These sales have a logic to them, and they’ve been a success,” David Nisinson, a New York-based collector and adviser, said. “The market for modern and contemporary has essentially become the entire art market. If they continue to attract very major property we may see more sales with this approach.”
Other observers were more skeptical, suggesting that the formula was wearing a little thin the second time around. The “Muse” theme was elastic enough for Christie’s to include the 1981 Andy Warhol silk-screen painting, “Gun.” It sold for $11.9 million, with fees, just under the high estimate.
“A Warhol ‘Gun’ painting? How was that his muse?” the New York dealer Henry Zimet said. “But if they can get away with it, good luck to them.”
Source: NY Times