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Another Modigliani Nu Couché sets the market on fire…

[02 May 2018]

In 2015, a Reclining Nude by Modigliani became the second most expensive artwork in auction history. Three years later, another nude by the same iconic artist has appeared on the market. With this spectacular canvas, shown in Hong Kong its sale in New York, Sotheby’s is probably hoping for another major auction record for the artist.

As New York’s prestige May sales approach, the excitement is palpable: among the many superb and rare works on offer at Christie’s Rockefeller Collection sale, a rare Pablo PICASSO entitled Fillette à la corbeille fleurie (1905) is expected to generate more than $100 million… and Sotheby’s is offering a large Reclining Nude (1917) by Amedeo MODIGLIANI for an estimated $150 million (the highest estimate ever given in auction history). Unlike the Picasso work at Christie’s, Modigliani’s Nu couché has been sold publicly before. It was offered for sale 15 years ago at a Christie’s Impressionist & Modern Sale in New York where it fetched $26.8 million. Since then, the small club of artworks that have sold above $100 million has continued to grow as masterpieces are fought over by major private collectors and new museums around the world. The $150 million announced by Sotheby’s is only an estimate that the auctioneer hopes to beat.. but the work is the largest known painting by the artist (89.5 x 146.7 cm). In a few days, it could generate Modigliani’s record provided it crosses the threshold of $170.4 million hammered on 9 November 2015 at Christie’s in New York for another Reclining Nude (Nu couché).

And yet when Modigliani’s nudes were first exposed in Paris, a police commissioner with an office opposite the Berthe Weill gallery where they were being shown described the works as obscene. A small scandal developed… but time has worked wonders and nowadays these nudes are mega popular with visitors to the world’s largest museums including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Guggenheim in New York, the Courtauld Institute of Art and the Long Shanghai museum. The Reclining Nude about to be offered at Sotheby’s was also shown in a recent exhibition at the Tate Modern (23 November 2017 – 2 April 2018) entirely dedicated to Modigliani’s nudes, the kind of prestige exposure that racks up auction prices…

Maybe a jackpot…

Although financial logic accounts for the bulk of the prices paid for major masterpieces these days, there are still lots of works that attract an irrational and passion-inspired premium. These premiums are particularly noticeable with certain works by Andy Warhol, Pablo Picasso and Frida Kahlo for example. In early 2013, the portrait of Jeanne Hébuterne (Au chapeau), Modigliani’s muse and lover from 1917 to 1920, fetched over $42 million in London, posting a gain of nearly 12 million in seven years. What kind of Modigliani works can attract that level of price increase? Clearly the most legendary works in the artist’s personal history. In this case, a portrait of Jeanne Hebuterne – elegant, hatted, with a long thin neck and suspended hand, painted in a thoroughly modern way, both stylized and synthetic, showing the influences of Cubism. Apart from the work’s aesthetic qualities, Jeanne Hebuterne was undoubtedly the most important model for the artist… with the romanticism and tragedy of their brief affair contributing to the “Modigliani myth”. On the night of 25 January 1920, Jeanne, nine months pregnant, defenestrated herself just a day after Amadeo Modigliani died.
So while Modigliani’s languid women speak to us of love, they also remind us of death. And they are rare… and rarity is a key valuation criteria on the high-end art market. Modigliani only painted 22 reclining nudes in his brief career and the one offered by Sotheby’s on May 14 is “one of the most emblematic and spectacular Modigliani works” according to Simon Shaw, co-director of Sotheby’s Impressionist & Modern art department. In short Modigliani’s largest and most spectacular canvas is expected to generate a gain of roughly 120 million over no more than 15 years!!

Modigliani… in brief

Amedeo Modigliani (1884-1920) moved from Livorno in Italy to Paris in 1906, a key period in the avant-garde movement. Fauvism was changing artistic habits and Picasso was preparing the Cubist revolution with numerous studies for his famous Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907). Modigliani absorbed the research by these eminent figures from the art world, but he also absorbed ideas from a variety of classical influences. The result was a glorious mix of Brancusi, Toulouse-Lautrec and Cézanne with traditional African art, Egyptian and Greek antiquity and Khmer sculpture. Before long, however, he found an independent path, focusing on portraits and female nudes with slender figures with their characteristic long necks and almond eyes.

Already copied during his lifetime, but not fully recognized until after his death, Modigliani’s production was relatively small: about 460 paintings, a thousand drawings and 25 sculptures. The majority of his works have been either burnt or lost. In the last twenty years, 1,400 signed works have been offered on the secondary market (including resales)… compared with over 61,000 in the case of Picasso for example.

Modigliani died prematurely at the age of 36, weakened by excess alcohol and drugs and advanced tuberculosis. The rarity and the unique character of his production partly accounts for the massive inflation of his auction prices. But when the scarcity effect combines with the current favourable context on the art market (international demand has never been stronger for emblematic works), there’s no telling what a superb Modigliani painting could fetch…

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