By Nate Freeman
Amedeo Modigliani, Nu couché (sur le côté gauche), 1917. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.
In the 1990s, when curator Kenneth Wayne narrowed his focus from Impressionist and modern artists to work almost exclusively on the painter Amedeo Modigliani, some of his colleagues didn’t understand the artist’s appeal. But Wayne loved how Modigliani, who spent his upbringing worshipping the techniques of the Renaissance masters, updated them to reflect the mindset of the burgeoning 20th century; the way he blended elements of Surrealism, Fauvism, and Cubism into his own dreamy style.
“People would even tease me: ‘Why are you working on him?’” Wayne recalled. “They were deriding it.”
No one is deriding his choices these days. In 2015, the Chinese collector Liu Yiqian bought one of the artist’s famed reclining nudes at Christie’s for $170.4 million, miles above the $100 million estimate, making it, at the time, the second-most-expensive artwork ever sold at auction. Next Monday, an even bigger and bolder reclining nude, Nu couché (sur le côté gauche) (1917), will be auctioned at Sotheby’s with the highest pre-sale estimate ever placed on a single work of art: $150 million.
One can understand Wayne’s colleagues’ skepticism. Modigliani was a hashish- and opium-addled bohemian in Paris in the 1920s who made mature work for just a few years, and then died of tuberculosis in his thirties. He received little institutional attention through the 1980s and ’90s (save for a small 1984 show at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.), nor did he have the market presence of other Impressionist and modern masters, who were selling for much more. At Sotheby’s in May 1990, a masterpiece by Modigliani deaccessioned by the Guggenheim sold for a record for the artist at $11.5 million, but at the same sale, Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s Bal du moulin de la Galette (1876) sold for $78.1 million.
The work for sale on Monday evening is guaranteed by a third party, who has placed an irrevocable bid on the lot for an undisclosed amount near the estimate—ensuring that the painting sells, and that the seller, Irish horse breeder John Magnier, walks away with a hefty sum. But specialists at Sotheby’s think this nude of a curvy woman shown from her backside could go much higher. It’s the auction house’s chance to make headlines in a season when rival Christie’s looks set to sweep the Imp/mod category, with its trove of Rockefeller masterpieces that have already raked in $646 million and a rare Picasso self-portrait set to sell Tuesday for potentially much more than its $70 million estimate. Still, this Modigliani could give Sotheby’s the week’s biggest lot.
When the Modigliani consignment was announced in April, former Christie’s chairman Brett Gorvy compared it to the moment in 2017 when Sotheby’s beat Christie’s to the last-minute consignment of a gigantic, electric-blue Jean-Michel Basquiat painting of a skull by delivering its consignor a $65 million guarantee. That painting ended up selling for $110 million, a record for an American artist.
“Sotheby’s hopes that Modigliani’s bootylicious nude will create the same bling moment this May,” Gorvy wrote on Instagram.
Simon Shaw, co-head worldwide of Impressionist and modern art at Sotheby’s, projected a cool confidence that the work could beat expectations, which would place it among the top five most-expensive works ever sold. His logic is simple: A record price was set two and half years ago, and this Modigliani is bigger, and better.
“We weren’t entering new territory [with the estimate], as there’s a price comp of a smaller nude—significantly smaller—that was sold three years ago at auction for $170 million,” Shaw said. “So that gave us a very clear point of reference.”
The $150 million Modigliani set to be sold Monday was part of a series of nudes commissioned by the dealer Leopold Zborowski in 1917, and caused quite a stir when they were first exhibited in the Parisian gallery Berthe Weill. A policeman approached the gallery and exclaimed, horrified, “These nudes…they have b-b-body hair!” Scandalized, French authorities shut down the show. But it was this series that commanded Modigliani’s highest prices in his lifetime. The most expensive one that Zborowski sold went for 300 francs (or $60, which is the equivalent of $1,097 in today’s dollars). After Modigliani’s death by tuberculosis, according to Smithsonian magazine, Zborowski and the galleries that had work in their inventories were selling his paintings for 10 times his highest prices—and then getting flipped by the buyers for 10 times that. When adjusting those markups for inflation, his work was selling for over $100,000 by today’s standard.
Plus ça change. The reclining nudes from that show are still Modigliani’s most coveted works, as they were enormously influential. Wayne explained that he was responsible for modernizing the female nude, committing fully to placing the woman in a contemporary context, rather than setting a nude in a historical context—say, a Roman orgy—that would justify the nakedness. (He also added pubic hair, which had rarely been depicted on female nudes.) Of the 22 paintings that Modigliani made depicting nude, reclining women, 13 are in public institutions—the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and the Osaka City Museum of Modern Art all have one—meaning that the nude at Sotheby’s is one of just nine left in private hands.
Magnier purchased this Nu couché at auction in 2003 for $26.9 million, where it had been consigned by Las Vegas casino magnate Steve Wynn (Wynn is in the process of stepping down from his casino empire amid accusations of sexual assault). Wynn purchased it for an undisclosed price from the family of Jonas Netter, an Alsatian trademarks agent who had secured it from Zborowski in 1926, six years after the artist’s death.
Wayne credits this 458 percent rise in value in the past 15 years to the number of Modigliani museum exhibitions over the last two decades, starting with the show he helped put together at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York, in October 2002, which then traveled to the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Shortly thereafter, the market began to catch on, leading up to what was then a record-breaking sale of Wynn’s Modigliani to Magnier.
“It took awhile for the market to catch up,” Wayne said. “He was always considered a big name, but there was a lull for some reason.” But the museum shows and subsequent scholarly attention created a turning point in the market. By 2010, a Modigliani sculpture sold for $57.7 million at Christie’s in Paris.
“One of his sculptures came up in 1995 with an estimate of $1 to $2 million and it didn’t sell,” Wayne recalled. “Fifteen years later, there are people battling it out.”
Shaw said that the timing of the sale was canny, as the Tate Modern just staged a blockbuster show devoted to Modigliani’s nudes, which Wayne said were indisputably the most celebrated, and coveted, works in his oeuvre. Happily for Sotheby’s, Monday’s Nu couché was on the cover of the Tate show’s catalogue, and was displayed on ads for the exhibition that were pasted all over London. That give some credence to the Sotheby’s selling point that this is simply the best Modigliani nude.
“What is extremely unlikely these days with great modern masters is to get an A-plus picture,” Shaw said. “To be able to say, ‘Nobody in the world will ever be able to buy a better example’ is something that, for artists like Van Gogh or Renoir or Monet, you’re never able to say hand-on-heart. Here, this is the largest, most ambitious picture he ever made. This is the last chance saloon.”
The work was first unveiled in Hong Kong, and Shaw said there is a lot of interest in it from Asian collectors. Yiqian, who bought the record-setting Modigliani nude in 2015, placed that work in his private museum in Shanghai. Shaw also noted this nude is the right nude for the #MeToo era, since it questions the relationship between the gaze of the male painter and the agency of the naked female muse. In this work, the viewer only sees her from behind, and the gaze is powerful and direct—a revolutionary way to empower the female sitter in a portrait, and a method, Shaw said, that was pioneered by Modigliani to reflect a new sense of independence for Parisian women that came with the upheaval of World War I.
“She’s in charge—she’s very much in control and in possession of her sexuality,” Shaw said. “In traditional painting, across the centuries of the nude, there’s a particular kind of gaze that’s implied between a male viewer and a to-some-degree objectified female nude subject. Modigliani is trying to reverse that. She is the strong powerful woman. It’s her gaze, in fact, that holds you.”