The Sotheby’s Impressionist & Modern Art Evening Sale in New York on May 14 may yield the priciest art auction sale in history, if house projections are correct.
The catalogue features paintings, works on paper and sculptures by leading artists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, including Claude Monet, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Eduard Manet, Marc Chagall, Joan Miró, Henry Moore, Tamara De Lempicka, Egon Schiele and Georgia O’Keeffe.
But anticipation is building around one canvas from Italian modernist Amedeo Modigliani, which has been given a presale estimate of $150 million, the highest estimate for an artwork in auction history.
The previous record was set in 2017 by Picasso’s “Les femmes d’Alger (Version ‘O’),” 1955, which was given a presale estimate of $140 million. That painting sold at auction for $179 million.
Modigliani’s “Nu Couché” (1917) depicts a nude, dark-haired woman reclining on her side on top of a white sheet. She is propped on one elbow and peers inscrutably behind her at the viewer.
It is Modigliani’s largest painting, at nearly 58 inches wide, which was responsible for the closing of his only solo show in 1917 after only an hour, due to obscenity. The offending element was a small patch of pubic hair just visible between the model’s slightly parted thighs.
“This painting reimagines the nude for the modern era,” said Simon Shaw, co-head worldwide of Sotheby’s Impressionist & Modern Art department.
“Modigliani depicted his models as confident and self-possessed in their sexuality. While situating itself within a classical canon of nude painting, the work is radically innovative in style.
“Modigliani assimilates a world of visual cultures across the centuries, from Egyptian, Japanese, African, Indian and Iberian sculpture; from Renaissance frescoes through Romanticism, to the cutting-edge of Cubism.
“Together these pictures signal a watershed in perhaps the greatest tradition in art — there is the nude before Modigliani, and there is the nude after Modigliani.”
In 2015, a Modigliani painting also named “Nu Couché” was purchased via Christie’s auction for $170.4 million by billionaire investor Liu Yiqian and his wife, Wang Wei, for the Long Museum in Shanghai.
The couple opened the museum, with locations in Pudong and West Bund, in 2014. Liu, formerly a taxi driver, used his American Express card for that purchase to earn points for travel discounts, according to the Associated Press.
Modigliani was born in Livorno, Italy, in 1884. He focused on portraits and the human figure, creating paintings, sketches and sculptures. He struggled to find critical or financial success, engaged in heavy drinking and drug use, and died in Paris at age 35.
According to Sotheby’s, the “Nu Couché” now at auction was purchased by its current owner for $26 million in 2003, indicating how hot the art market in the rarified atmosphere truly is.
The most expensive painting in the world is Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi, painted around 1500, which was purchased by the Abu Dhabi Department of Culture & Tourism for $450.3 million in 2017. That purchase eclipsed the sale of Willem de Kooning’s “Interchange,” 1955, for $300 by investor and philanthropist Kenneth C. Griffin in 2015.
The Sotheby’s auction begins at 7 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, May 14. Modigliani’s “Nu Couché” is lot 18.