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Kevin Ching, chief executive officer of Sotheby’s Asia, at a presentation in Hong Kong of Amedeo Modigliani's painting Nu Couché (sur le coté gauche) ahead of its sale at Sotheby’s in New York for US$157 million. Photo: Nora Tam

Modigliani sells for US$157 million, and it’s only fourth most expensive art piece ever sold

Italian painter’s masterpiece was the star lot of May auction season in New York


A stunning nude that is the largest painting produced by Italian artist Amedeo Modigliani sold for US$157.2 million in New York, becoming the fourth most expensive work of art sold at auction.

Painted a century ago, Modigliani’s masterpiece Nu couché (sur le coté gauche) fetched the highest price in Sotheby’s history and was the star single lot in the May art auction season in New York.

Modigliani follows Leonardo da Vinci and Pablo Picasso as the third highest-selling artist at auction. Monday’s sale failed to eclipse the US$170.4 million paid for another Modigliani reclining nude, Nu Couché (1917-18), at Christie’s in 2015 by Chinese collector Liu Yiqian.
Bid takers stand in front of a video screen showing Amedeo Modigliani's Nu couché, bought at a Christie’s auction in 2015 by Chinese collector Liu Yiqian for US$170.4 million. Photo: AFP

Da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi, which was sold for US$450 million at Christie’s in New York last year, remains the most expensive painting ever auctioned. That is followed by Picasso’s Les femmes d’Alger (Version ‘O’), which went under the hammer for US$179.3 million, also at Christie’s New York, in 2015.

Nearly 1.47 metres (58 inches) wide, the Modigliani picture was the cover star of a recent retrospective at the Tate Modern gallery in London.

Leonardo da Vinci's Salvator Mundi on display at Christie's in London ahead of its sale for a record US$450 million to the Louvre museum in Abu Dhabi. Photo: AP

The Italian painter reinvented the nude for the modern era, and when his series of paintings were first exhibited in 1917 they were considered so shocking that police closed the show in Paris.

Bidding in New York on Monday was restrained, lasting three to four minutes and opening at US$125 million before auctioneer Helena Newman brought the hammer down at US$139 million. The final price includes a buyer’s premium.

The price represents a healthy profit for its seller, who acquired the picture in 2003 for US$26.9 million.

The world’s second most expensive painting, Picasso’s Les femmes d'Alger (Version O), which sold for US$179.3 million at Christie’s New York in 2015. Photo: Andrew Burton/Getty Images/AFP

Modigliani completed 22 reclining nudes and 13 seated nudes between 1916 and 1919. Most of the former are found in museums, such as The Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Simon Shaw, co-head of Impressionist and modern art at Sotheby’s, said the painting sold on Monday, while rooted in tradition, reflected the changing status of women during the first world war.

“This is a nude of a very self-possessed, sexually confident woman who is not looking out from a distance. She’s absolutely meeting our gaze,” he said before the sale.

Modigliani’s dealer Leopold Zborowski gave him a stipend of 15 francs a day and paid the models five francs to pose in a Paris flat.