A Modigliani reclining nude is to be offered at auction with an estimate in excess of $150m (£108m), the highest pre-sale figure for work of art.
Sotheby’s announced the estimate as it unveiled the 1917 painting Nu couché (sur le côté gauche), a star of the recent Modigliani show at Tate Modern, to an audience of collectors and journalists in Hong Kong.
Simon Shaw, the co-head of Sotheby’s impressionist and modern art department, said the work was radically innovative and had an important place in art history. “This painting reimagines the nude for the modern era,” he said.
The painting is one of 22 reclining nudes completed by Modigliani, many of them exhibited at a scandalising exhibition in Paris in 1917. “Together these pictures signal a watershed in perhaps the greatest tradition in art,” said Shaw. “There is nude before Modigliani, and there is nude after Modigliani.”
Modigliani is one of only three artists whose work has broken the $150m barrier at auction. Another of his reclining nudes sold for $170.4m at Christie’s New York in 2015. It was bought by the Chinese billionaire Liu Yiqian and his wife, Wang Wei, described by the Financial Times as “one of the world’s flashiest art collectors”.
At the time, that sale represented the second highest amount paid at auction behind Pablo Picasso’s Women of Algiers (version O), which sold at Christie’s in 2015 for nearly $180m. They were both overtaken by the $450m paid last year for Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi by the Louvre Abu Dhabi.
It would be a huge surprise if the Modigliani got anywhere near to that figure but even so, anywhere close to its estimate represents an eye-catching profit for its present owner who is, according to Bloomberg, the Irish racing tycoon and Coolmore Stud owner, John Magnier. He reportedly bought it for $26.9m in 2003.
At 147cm wide, it is the largest work Modigliani painted. The majority of his reclining nudes are in museums, particularly in the US. The Guggenheim, MoMa and the Met in New York own one each. The only one in the UK is in the Courtauld Gallery in London.
Shaw said Modigliani was assimilating a world of visual cultures across centuries in the reclining nudes series. “From Egyptian, Japanese, African, Indian and Iberian sculpture, from Renaissance frescoes through Romanticism to the cutting-edge of Cubism.”
When the nudes went on display at the Paris gallery of the dealer Berthe Weill there was huge interest. It was closed after a day with one police officer incredulous at the inclusion of pubic hair.
Modigliani is the archetypal starving-in-a-garret bohemian artist. He was a womaniser who enjoyed rum, absinthe, opium, hashish and cocaine before expiring as a result of alcohol-aggravated tuberculosis in 1920, aged 35.
Nu couché was included in a roomful of nudes at Tate Modern show for the largest Modigliani show ever staged in the UK, and featured on the cover of the catalogue.
The painting will be sold in New York in May, part of Sotheby’s big evening sale of impressionist and modern art. The expectation is that, like the previous Modigliani, the buyer will come from Asia.
The Modigliani Wang and Liu bought in 2015 was for their art museum in Shanghai.
In an interview with the FT (£), Wang said: “We need to collect foreign art so that our museums can be on a par with their foreign peers. Foreign countries have really a lot of museums, big and small, public or private. But we think China is lacking something when it comes to art … Even if we have enough food, we will be empty inside if we don’t have spiritual fulfilment.”
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