Modigliani nude sells for $170.4m as art market prices soar

‘Nu Couché’ by early 20th century Italian artist makes second-highest price ever at auction

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 (€159 million) with fees, 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 a Chinese buyer on the phone.

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.

Star lot

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.

Monday’s sale assuaged concerns that the Modigliani painting would be too risque 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.

In its preview exhibition, Christie’s 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 was also a far cry from the prices asked for the Italian artist’s work in his own brief and unsuccessful lifetime (he died of tuberculosis in 1920 at 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.

New York Times