Dating from 1917, Nu couché (sur le côté gauche) measures 4ft 10in (1.47m) wide and is the only one of his horizontal nudes to contain the entire figure within the borders of the canvas.
It is believed that the consignor is the Irish racehorse breeder John Magnier although this has not been confirmed by Sotheby’s. The auctioneers however have said that the vendor acquired it for $26.9m (including premium) at Christie’s in 2003 – a then-record price for the artist.
The current record for Modigliani is 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 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 now carries 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).
Sotheby’s unveiled the picture earlier today in its Hong Kong galleries, meaning collectors and the media in Asia were the first to get to view the work.
Simon Shaw, co-head worldwide of Sotheby’s Impressionist & Modern Art department, said: “This painting reimagines the nude for the Modern era… While situating itself within a classical canon of nude painting, the work is radically innovative in style: Modigliani assimilates a world of visual cultures across the centuries, from Egyptian, Japanese, African, Indian and Iberian sculpture, from Renaissance frescoes through Romanticism to the cutting-edge of Cubism.”
Commotion in Paris
The majority of 22 works in Modigliani’s series of reclining nudes 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 began his nude series 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.