‘Nu couché (sur le côté gauche)’ by Amedeo Modigliani
‘Nu couché (sur le côté gauche)’ by Amedeo Modigliani that was knocked down for $139m (£102.2m) at Sotheby’s New York. Image courtesy of Sotheby’s.

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Offered at Sotheby’s evening sale of Impressionist & Modern art with an estimate ‘in excess of $150m’, the auctioneers had arranged an ‘irrevocable bid’ in advance of the sale, meaning it was always bound to sell on the night.

At the auction, only one bidder was in contention to purchase the lot against such high expectations as it was duly knocked down below expectations at $139m (£102.2m). The sum was highest auction price ever in Sotheby’s history.

Nu couché (sur le côté gauche), a 4ft 10in (1.47m) wide oil on canvas from 1917, was reportedly consigned by Irish bloodstock billionaire John Magnier. Magnier’s wife Susan co-owns a racehorse named Amedeo Modigliani, trained by Aidan O'Brien.

While Sotheby’s have not confirmed any details about the consignor (the catalogue describes the picture as the ‘property of a distinguished private collector’), it has said the vendor acquired it for $26.9m (including premium) at Christie’s in 2003 – a then-record price for the artist.

The result here represented a five-fold return for the owner and demonstrated the growth in the Italian painter’s prices in the intervening 15 years, with interest from Asia being a key factor.

‘Nu couché (sur le côté gauche)’ by Amedeo Modigliani

‘Nu couché (sur le côté gauche)’ by Amedeo Modigliani

It was no surprise that the work was exhibited in Hong Kong prior to the sale since the previous record for Modigliani was the $152m ($170.4m with premium) paid for another of the artist’s nudes that sold at Christie’s New York in November 2015. The buyer back then was the Long Museum in Shanghai which is owned by the Chinese billionaire businessman and art collector Liu Yiqian.

The current picture is approximately a third larger and recently appeared in the Tate Modern’s retrospective of the artist’s work. It carried the highest ever estimate for a work of art offered at auction (Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘Salvator Mundi’ was estimated at $100m when it sold at Christie’s for $450m including premium in November).

Commotion in Paris

Modigliani began painting nudes in 1908 but it was in 1914 that he began executing works in the style and palette evident in Nu couché. He was helped in this regard by his dealer Léopold Zborowski who provided the artist with both a space in an apartment just above his own in the Rue Joseph Bara in Paris and also paid models five francs a day to pose for him.

In 1917, at the request of Zborowski, Parisian dealer Berthe Weill staged an exhibition of Modigliani’s works, including a number of the nudes which were visible from the gallery’s window.

Upon opening and with crowds immediately gathering, a police officer asked for the removal of the offending canvases which he considered indecent. Weill refused to do so and was later interviewed by the local police chief. The show was closed with Zborowski only selling two drawings at 30 francs each.

Today the majority of the 22 reclining nudes Modigliani painted are now found in museums with nine in the US – the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, The Museum of Modern Art and The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York each hold three examples. He also painted 13 seated nudes.

Modigliani is one of only three artists to break the £100m barrier at auction, along with Pablo Picasso and Leonardo da Vinci.