Chinese billionaire buys Modigliani painting 'Nu Couche' for world record US$170.4 million

A New York art auction sees historic multi-million dollar bids for Modigliani, Lichtenstein and Courbet paintings, smashing records for highest ever auction prices.

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 10 November, 2015, 12:49pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 11 November, 2015, 2:13pm

Chinese billionaire Liu Yiqian bought Amedeo Modigliani’s painting of a reclining nude woman for US$170.4 million, the second-highest price for an artwork at auction, in a volatile sale at Christie’s in New York.

It is not the first time he has broken records for bidding on works of art: in 2014 he paid a record price for a Tibetan tapestry.

READ MORE: Chinese tycoon Liu Yiqian breaks world auction record for HK$348.4m thangka

Modigliani’s 1917 Nu Couche (Reclining Nude) anchored Christie’s special, mixed-category sale titled "The Artist’s Muse," which included 34 paintings and sculptures created from the 1860s through the 2000s.

The evening tallied US$491.4 million, setting five auction records for artists including Gustave Courbet and Roy Lichtenstein, whose painting of a nurse sold for US$95.4 million.

The Modigliani price was an auction record for the Italian artist.

"Prices have reached the Promised Land," billionaire collector Eli Broad said after the sale. "I can’t imagine it going much higher though. Can you?"

READ MORE: Naked ambition: Liu’s Modigliani is seventh artwork bought for more than HK$100m

Some resistance was already visible during the packed evening sale, which was part of a 10-day marathon in which more than US$2.1 billion of art is on offer at Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Phillips. Ten lots failed to find buyers, including those by Lucian Freud and Willem de Kooning. 

The results fell within Christie’s presale target range of US$442 million to US$540 million, but were 30 per cent lower than the company’s first hybrid sale in May, "Looking Forward to the Past." That auction tallied US$705.9 million, and a Pablo Picasso painting set a new auction record at US$179.4 million.

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To win the prized artworks, Christie’s offered the sellers of 17 pieces minimum guaranteed prices regardless of the outcome in the salesroom. Initially, the guarantees were backed by Christie’s. Before the auction started, Jussi Pylkkanen, the auctioneer, announced that five guaranteed lots, including top works by Modigliani and Lichtenstein, were financially backed by third parties, a move that reduced Christie’s risk, but could also eat into potential profit.

Bidding for Modigliani’s ravishing brunette on a red couch started at US$75 million and attracted seven hopefuls. The Long Museum in China was the buyer of the Modigliani, according to Christie’s. The museum was founded by Liu Yiqian, who frequently buys art with his American Express card.

Watch: Modigliani nude sells for $170.4 million at Christie's

"It was a sensational picture and it brought a sensational price," said Guy Jennings, managing director of the Fine Art Fund in London and Christie’s former deputy chairman of Impressionist and modern art in New York. "It was the best painting Modigliani ever made. It’s not often that you can say this about an artwork at auction."

The previous auction record for Modigliani was US$70.7 million, established at Sotheby’s a year ago for a carved stone head of a woman.

Courbet’s painting of a sleeping nude fetched US$15.3 million, quadrupling the Impressionist artist’s previous auction record. Courbet’s 1862 canvas, Femme nue couchee, was estimated at US$15 million to US$25 million.

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Lichtenstein’s comic book-style Nurse painting fetched US$95.4 million, also an artist auction record. Although the final price, which includes buyer’s premium, surpassed the presale target of more than US$80 million, only one bidder wanted the work, a client of Laura Paulson, Christie’s senior international director in the postwar and contemporary art department. The work’s value increased about 5,500 per cent in the 20 years since it last sold at auction. Lichtenstein’s previous auction record of US$56.1 million was achieved in May 2013 at Christie’s in New York.

Paul Gauguin’s carved wood sculpture of a woman, Therese (1902-1903), fetched US$30.9 million, surpassing the high estimate of US$25 million. It was pursued by Stephane C. Connery, a private art dealer, and Paul Gray, director of Richard Gray Gallery in Chicago and New York whose clients include hedge-fund manager Kenneth Griffin.

The winner was a client of Conor Jordan, Christie’s deputy chairman of Impressionist and modern art in New York.

Great works that haven’t been seen on the open market for decades, like the Modigliani, "created a huge amount of energy and bidding", said Pylkkanen, Christie’s global president. Those that weren’t as fresh or had the estimates that were "a bit strong" led to the evening’s disappointments, he said.

READ MORE: The art of the real deal: China's auction market

Several pieces backed by Christie’s failed to find buyers, underscoring just how risky guarantees can be. One of the unsold guaranteed lots was De Kooning’s Woman, estimated at US$14 million to US$18 million.

Christie’s has jammed its Impressionist, modern and contemporary auctions into a single week, a strategy that worked for the company in May when it walked away with US$1.7 billion, almost twice rival Sotheby’s tally.

Sotheby’s last week sold US$377 million in its own hybrid evening sale, "Masterworks," from the collection of its former chairman A. Alfred Taubman. A Modigliani painting was the top lot in that auction, too. Unlike the nude at Christie’s, Modigliani’s woman at Sotheby’s was fully robed in black, and at US$42.8 million, cost four times less.

"It was straight forward: if the work was overestimated it didn’t sell," Jennings said about the Christie’s sale. "The market has plateaued. It’s leveled off at a very high level."