Modigliani Makes $170 Million

NEW YORK CITY -- A painting of an outstretched nude woman by the early 20th-century artist Amedeo Modigliani sold for $170.4 million with fees, in a packed sales room at Christie’s last night, the second highest price paid at auction.

The painting became the 10th work of art to sell for nine figures under the hammer.

Art collectors of Art Kabinett social media network were at Christie's to witness the event.

The seller of the Modigliani, Laura Mattioli Rossi, the daughter of the Italian collector Gianni Mattioli, was guaranteed a minimum price by Christie’s of $100 million.

A pop art work by Roy Lichtenstein, “Nurse,” from 1964, also defied expectations, selling for slightly over $95.3 million, well above its $80 million high estimate — despite the lack of a “speech” or “thought bubble” that typically drives up the price of Lichtenstein works.

Monday night’s sale of 34 lots was expected to bring at least $443.9 million.

Modigliani’s 1917-18 canvas, “Nu Couché,” was undeniably 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 record 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.

Monday’s sale confirmed that the painting was not too risqué for some collectors.
“This painting leaps off the page as the most vibrant, sexual, lyrical of the catalog raisonee,” said Ana Maria Celis, a Christie’s specialist in Post-War & Contemporary Art.

In its preview exhibition, Christie’s deliberately positioned the Modigliani near Lucian Freud’s painting of his nude daughter Bella, “Naked Portrait on a Red Sofa.”

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 was a universe away 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 in all likelihood 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 couldn’t raise the cash.

Lichtenstein’s “Nurse” generated a good deal of early excitement — with many people posing for pictures in front of it at Sunday’s champagne and canapé preview brunch — in part because of its sharp color and the quality of the artist’s signature dots, which were individually stenciled by hand.

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’).”

Brett Gorvy, Christie’s worldwide chairman of postwar and contemporary art, said that Monday’s “Muse” sale had attracted both “the hard-core collector base and new buyers looking for a masterpiece. They want to know they’re buying the best of the best,” he said. “The mood is about confidence. There’s more than enough liquidity in the market.”

Both 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.

On Monday, 18 lots in the catalog were guaranteed, as were about half the number of lots in the “Looking Forward” sale in May.

Here are the nine other works that have sold for more than $100 million at auction, not adjusted for inflation, according to Christie’s:

$179.4 million — Pablo Picasso, “Les femmes d’Alger (Version ‘O’)” (1955), oil on canvas, 2015, Christie’s New York
$142.4 million — Francis Bacon, “Three Studies of Lucian Freud (in 3 parts)” (1969), oil on canvas, 2013, Christie’s New York
$141.3 million — Alberto Giacometti, “L’homme au doigt” (1947), bronze with patina and hand-painted, 2015, Christie’s New York
$120 million — Edvard Munch, “The Scream” (1895), pastel on board, 2012, Sotheby’s New York
$106.5 million — Pablo Picasso, “Nude Green Leaves and Bust” (1932), oil on canvas, 2010, Christie’s New York
$105.4 million — Andy Warhol, “Silver Car Crash,” 2013, Sotheby’s New York
$104.2 million — Pablo Picasso, “Garçon à la pipe” (1905), oil on canvas, 2004, Sotheby’s New York
$103.9 million — Alberto Giacometti, “L’homme qui marche” (1960), bronze, 2010, Sotheby’s London
$100.9 million — Alberto Giacometti, “Chariot” (1950), painted bronze, 2014, Sotheby’s New York

Today's homepage Featured Art Video explores Modigliani's defining masterpiece, Nu Couché.