Chinese Billionaire Buys Modigliani for Record $170.4 Million

New York's $2 Billion Fall Art Auction Season
  • Painting's price was second-highest ever for art at auction
  • `Artist's Muse' rocky sale in New York totaled $491.4 million

Chinese billionaire Liu Yiqian bought Amedeo Modigliani’s painting of a reclining nude woman for $170.4 million, the second-highest price for an artwork at auction, in a volatile sale at Christie’s in New York.

Modigliani’s 1917 “Nu Couche (Reclining Nude)” anchored Christie’s special, mixed-category sale titled “The Artist’s Muse,” which included 34 paintings and sculptures created from the 1860s through the 2000s. The evening tallied $491.4 million, setting five auction records for artists including Gustave Courbet and Roy Lichtenstein, whose painting of a nurse sold for $95.4 million. The Modigliani price was an auction record for the Italian artist.

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

“Prices have reached the Promised Land,” billionaire collector Eli Broad said after the sale. “I can’t imagine it going much higher though. Can you?”

Marathon Sales

Some resistance was already visible during the packed evening sale, which was part of a 10-day marathon in which more than $2.1 billion of art is on offer at Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Phillips. Ten lots failed to find buyers, including those by Lucian Freud and Willem de Kooning. 

The results fell within Christie’s presale target range of $442 million to $540 million, but were 30 percent lower than the company’s first hybrid sale in May, “Looking Forward to the Past.” That auction tallied $705.9 million, and a Pablo Picasso painting set a new auction record at $179.4 million.

To win the prized artworks, Christie’s offered the sellers of 17 pieces minimum guaranteed prices regardless of the outcome in the salesroom. Initially, the guarantees were backed by Christie’s. Before the auction started, Jussi Pylkkanen, the auctioneer, announced that five guaranteed lots, including top works by Modigliani and Lichtenstein, were financially backed by third parties, a move that reduced Christie’s risk but could also eat into potential profit.

Bidding for Modigliani’s ravishing brunette on a red couch started at $75 million and attracted seven hopefuls. The Long Museum in China was the buyer of the Modigliani, according to Christie’s. The museum was founded by Liu Yiqian, who frequently buys art with his American Express card.

Sensational Price

“It was a sensational picture and it brought a sensational price,” said Guy Jennings, managing director of the Fine Art Fund in London and Christie’s former deputy chairman of Impressionist and modern art in New York. “It was the best painting Modigliani ever made. It’s not often that you can say this about an artwork at auction.”

Courbet's "Femme nue couchee"
Courbet's "Femme nue couchee"
Photographer: Katya Kazakina/Bloomberg

The previous auction record for Modigliani was $70.7 million, established at Sotheby’s a year ago for a carved stone head of a woman.

Courbet’s painting of a sleeping nude fetched $15.3 million, quadrupling the Impressionist artist’s previous auction record. Courbet’s 1862 canvas, “Femme nue couchee,” was estimated at $15 million to $25 million.

Lichtenstein’s comic book-style “Nurse” painting fetched $95.4 million, also an artist auction record. Although the final price, which includes buyer’s premium, surpassed the presale target of more than $80 million, only one bidder wanted the work, a client of Laura Paulson, Christie’s senior international director in the postwar and contemporary art department. The work’s value increased about 5,500 percent in the 20 years since it last sold at auction. Lichtenstein’s previous auction record of $56.1 million was achieved in May 2013 at Christie’s in New York.

Gauguin’s Sculpture

Paul Gauguin’s carved wood sculpture of a woman, “Therese” (1902-1903), fetched $30.9 million, surpassing the high estimate of $25 million. It was pursued by Stephane C. Connery, a private art dealer, and Paul Gray, director of Richard Gray Gallery in Chicago and New York whose clients include hedge-fund manager Kenneth Griffin. The winner was a client of Conor Jordan, Christie’s deputy chairman of Impressionist and modern art in New York.

Great works that haven’t been seen on the open market for decades, like the Modigliani, “created a huge amount of energy and bidding," said Pylkkanen, Christie’s global president. Those that weren’t as fresh or had the estimates that were “a bit strong" led to the evening’s disappointments, he said.

Lichtenstein's "Nurse"
Lichtenstein's "Nurse"
Photographer: Katya Kazakina/Bloomberg

Several pieces backed by Christie’s failed to find buyers, underscoring just how risky guarantees can be. One of the unsold guaranteed lots was De Kooning’s “Woman,” estimated at $14 million to $18 million.

Christie’s has jammed its Impressionist, modern and contemporary auctions into a single week, a strategy that worked for the company in May when it walked away with $1.7 billion, almost twice rival Sotheby’s tally.
 
Sotheby’s last week sold $377 million in its own hybrid evening sale, “Masterworks,” from the collection of its former chairman A. Alfred Taubman. A Modigliani painting was the top lot in that auction, too. Unlike the nude at Christie’s, Modigliani’s woman at Sotheby’s was fully robed in black, and at $42.8 million, cost four times less.

“It was straight forward: if the work was overestimated it didn’t sell,” Jennings said about the Christie’s sale. “The market has plateaued. It’s leveled off at a very high level.”

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