Modigliani's controversial 'Nu couch-' painting breaks auction record

A masterpiece that was once censored on the grounds of obscenity has now set a new auction record.Sotheby's ha...

Posted: Apr 24, 2018 2:37 PM
Updated: Apr 24, 2018 2:37 PM

A masterpiece that was once censored on the grounds of obscenity has now set a new auction record.

Sotheby's has announced that "Nu couch- (sur le c-t- gauche)" (1917) by the Italian artist Amedeo Modigliani, which depicts a naked French woman in repose, will lead its Impressionist & Modern Art Evening Sale on May 14 with an pre-sale estimate in excess of $150 million -- the highest estimate placed on an artwork at auction.

Until now, this record was held by Pablo Picasso's "Les femmes d'Alger (Version 'O')" (1955), which had an estimate of $140 million and went on to sell for $179 million. Leonardo da Vinci's "Salvator Mundi," which became the world's most expensive artwork when it sold for $450 million in 2017, had a (relatively) modest estimate of $100 million.

Modigliani first unveiled his series of nudes in 1917 at his first and only solo show, an exhibition at Paris' Berthe Weill gallery. It's said that the exhibition was shut down within hours of its opening because a police officer was offended by the models' pubic hair.

"These women are overtly sexual and that really connects with the way women were troubling society at the time," Nancy Ireson, a curator of Tate Modern's recent Modigliani retrospective, told CNN in November 2017. "These pictures were made during the First World War, when more women were working, more women were living independently ... there really is a social anxiety about that."

"Nu couch-" is one of 22 reclining nude paintings by Modigliani (he also painted 13 less valuable seated nudes), and one of only nine left in private hands. Its current owner bought the painting for $26.9 million in 2003, but since then, Modigliani's market value has skyrocketed. In 2010, "Nu assis sur un divan (La belle romaine)" (1917) sold for $69 million and, just five years later, billionaire collector Liu Yiqian bought "Nu Couch-" (1917-18) for $170.4 million, setting the standing record for the artist at auction.

It's likely that "Nu couch-" will break that record. Speaking at the painting's unveiling in Hong Kong today, Simon Shaw, co-head worldwide of Sotheby's Impressionist & Modern Art Department, called the painting "Modigliani's great masterpiece."

"This, ladies and gentlemen, is one of the finest paintings by any artist remaining in private hands," he said. "It's certainly the greatest painting Modigliani ever painted."

The elaborate nature of the unveiling underscored Sotheby's investment in the sale of "Nu couch-:" Shaw and Kevin Ching, CEO of Sotheby's Asia, spoke in front of a gold curtain, which was eventually separated to reveal the painting behind it. A video of the event was streamed live on Facebook and on Sothebys.com, where it was cryptically billed as a "seminal event, the unveiling of a masterpiece." The website also featured a countdown clock in the lead-up to the announcement.

While he thought the parting curtains were "a bit too game show," Steven Murphy, managing partner of Murphy & Partners art advisory and former CEO of Christie's, praised Sotheby's for creating a sense of excitement around the painting. He likened the day's event to the aggressive marketing for Christie's sale of "Salvator Mundi," which saw the painting sell for almost five times the initial estimate.

"This method of marketing, which we've seen for the new Bond release, as an example, takes nothing away from the fact that the painting itself on its own, when you stand in front of it, is a masterpiece. And it also ends up showing the picture to millions and millions of people, and that's a good thing," he said.

"What's amusing to me is that the marketing itself and the painting itself are both incredibly successful exercises in the art of seduction."

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