Christie's Chases Another Record Season With Modigliani Nude

"Nu Couché" by Amedeo Modigliani. Source: Christie's

  • `Reclining Nude' painting may fetch more than $100 million.
  • Christie's sold $1.7 billion of art in a single week in May.

Christie’s is betting that a painting of a sultry nude brunette by Amedeo Modigliani will lead to another blockbuster auction season.

Estimated at more than $100 million, Modigliani’s 1917 “Nu Couche (Reclining Nude)” will anchor Christie’s second special sale of 20th-century art on Nov. 9 in New York. Titled “The Artist’s Muse,” it will include about 30 paintings and sculptures.

“She is a woman of incredible elegance and dignity,” Jussi Pylkkanen, Christie’s global president and chief auctioneer, said in a telephone interview about the nude. “It’s the Holy Grail of the artist’s work.”

The New York auctions in November will be the biggest test of the art market following the turmoil in the financial markets. In May, Christie’s sold $1.7 billion of art in a single week, including the most expensive work at auction -- Pablo Picasso’s “Les Femmes d’Alger (Version O),” which fetched $179.4 million.

Global auction results in the first half of this year slid 5.8 percent to $8.1 billion from the same period in 2014 because of weak sales in China, the U.K., France and Germany, according to New York-based Artnet.

Traditionally, Christie’s and Sotheby’s schedule their blockbuster evening sales during the first two weeks of May and November. Impressionist and modern art are offered during the first week and postwar and contemporary the second week. In May, Christie’s departed with the format, squeezing all of its auctions into a single week. Its Impressionist sale overlapped with smaller rival Phillips’s contemporary evening auction, a scenario that will be repeated in November.

Christie’s also introduced a hybrid auction model offering works across categories that spanned the entire 20th century -- the most lucrative segment of the market that includes modern and postwar artists such as Picasso, Alberto Giacometti, Francis Bacon and Andy Warhol.

The strategy paid off. Christie’s beat Sotheby’s in the Impressionist and modern art category in May, where it had previously trailed its competitor. The private Swiss collectors who own the Modigliani agreed to consign the work if Christie’s organized another hybrid sale, Pylkkanen said. 

The consignors will also be paid an undisclosed minimum price, known as a guarantee, regardless of whether the painting sells or flops. Pylkkanen declined to say whether Christie’s is financing the guarantee or found a third-party to take on the risk.

Sotheby’s holds the auction record for any work by Modigliani with the sale of “Tete,” a carved stone head of a woman that fetched $70.7 million in New York in November 2014. The highest price paid for a Modigliani painting, $68.9 million, was in 2010, also at Sotheby’s.

“It’s a perfectly reasonable estimate,” said David Nash, co-owner of Mitchell-Innes & Nash gallery in New York. “It’s from a series of Modigliani’s work that are probably most popular and highly regarded. I think it’s the best picture in the series."

Modigliani’s prices surpassed the $100 million mark in a private transaction.
In 2012, Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev paid $118 million for another reclining nude by Modigliani, which was being sold by billionaire money manager Steven A. Cohen.

The reclining nude painting at Christie’s has never been sold at auction, Pylkkanen said. It was in various museum exhibitions, including “Modigliani and His Models” at the Royal Academy of Arts in London in 2006. The work hasn’t been seen publicly in the U.S. in 50 years, according to Pylkkanen.

“It will be another great moment,” he said.

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