An Amedeo Modigliani painting of a nude brunette lounging on tousled bedsheets and peering over her right shoulder sold for $157.2 million at Sotheby’s on Monday, a record for the artist and one of the few paintings to ever surpass $150 million at auction.
On the heels of rival Christie’s $833 million sale of David Rockefeller’s estate last week, Sotheby’s set out to steal some of the spotlight with Modigliani’s 1917 “Reclining Nude” by asking $150 million for the painting—the highest price ever placed on an artwork headed to auction.
The pressure to perform may have backfired, in a way, because the work’s only bidder was a prearranged investor Sotheby’s had lined up to bid on—and win—should no other takers surface in the moment. After introducing bids at $125 million, auctioneer Helena Newman spent several awkward minutes seeking to stir up interest in the Modigliani before the anonymous, third-party guarantor called in and placed a winning bid of $139 million, or $157.2 million after Sotheby’s fees.
The result felt like watching someone pick up a coveted item they put on hold at a store: The seller and buyer were likely pleased, but the act itself failed to stir any competitive fever—no theatrical crackle—in Sotheby’s New York saleroom. The seller was Irish horse breeder John Magnier, who paid Christie’s $26.9 million for it in 2003.
Modigliani’s ‘Reclining Nude.’ Photo: Sotheby’s/Associated Press
Afterward, dealers and art lenders said the Modigliani’s risk-offsetting guarantee may have ultimately dampened its appeal to seasoned collectors, who prefer to brag about scoring bargains rather than resetting price highs for artists they admire. “The guarantee level sucked all the oxygen out of the room,” said Evan Beard, national art services executive at U.S. Trust.
Simon Shaw, Sotheby’s co-head of impressionist and modern art world-wide, said the price was still a coup for the seller and the Italian artist, whose record stood around $42 million five years ago. “You can see the velocity of his price appreciation there,” Mr. Shaw said after the sale.
That one painting accounted for almost half of Sotheby’s $318.3 million sale on Monday night—a sign of how dependent these auction houses are on trophy art to shore up their sales.
Sotheby’s sale felt like a pendulum all night, with an Asian bidder paying $37 million for Pablo Picasso’s “The Sleeper,” surpassing its $35 million high estimate. Yet later in the sale, another Picasso—“Woman With Dog”—stalled at $11 million and failed to sell. Overall, 13 of Sotheby’s 45 offerings failed to find buyers, including examples by Marc Chagall, Edouard Manet and Claude Monet.
Elsewhere in the sale, the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, Mass., auctioned off a pair of works by Henry Moore and Francis Picabia for $1.4 million, despite protesters outside Sotheby’s picketing the museum’s decision to sell the works. Moore’s “Three Seated Women” sold for $300,000, below its $400,000 low estimate, and Picabia’s “Comic Strength” sold for $1.1 million, within its $800,000-to-$1.2 million estimate.
Strong prices were paid for works by female artists. Georgia O’Keeffe’s 1921 piece “Lake George With White Birch,” which was only expected to sell for up to $6 million, went for $11.3 million, while the $4.5 million paid for Mary Cassatt work pastel, “A Goodnight Hug,” quadrupled its high estimate.
Christie’s will counter with its own sale of impressionist and modern art Tuesday.
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