Amedeo Modigliani’s Nu Couché (1917–18) soared past its already astronomical $100 million on-request estimate en route to a record-smashing price of $170.4 million at Christie’s Monday night, making the magnificent nude portrait the second-most-expensive painting ever sold at auction—and, in a twist, a high point in an otherwise surprisingly tepid evening. The Artist’s Muse, the auction house’s latest attempt to create buzz with a “curated,” mixed-era sale, took in $491.4 million. That was higher than its $440 million low estimate, but a far cry from the total bagged by the house’s last special sale in May, “Looking Forward to the Past,” which totaled $705.8 million. (Both sales had 34 lots.)
The sale also drew gasps and murmurs from the crowd at Rockefeller Center as four eight-figure lots failed to find buyers, with much-hyped offerings like de Kooning’s Woman (circa 1952–53) and Freud’s Naked Portrait on a Red Sofa (1989–91) flopping hard on the block. With ten passes in the small curated event, the sell-through rate was a weak 71 percent. In May’s special sale, 97 percent of the lots sold.
On the bright side, the Modigliani—which went to a bidder from China, Christie’s president Jussi Pylkkänen revealed after the sale (crumbling Chinese markets be damned!)—bested the previous record high for the dirt-poor, dead-young, hashish-addicted artist by nearly $100 million. His former high mark, of $70.7 million, was achieved at Sotheby’s last year.
The Artist’s Muse also saw new records for Gustave Courbet, Balthus, Yoshitomo Nara, and Roy Lichtenstein—the latter’s work, Nurse (1964), scored the second-highest price of the sale: $95.4 million. There were also records for sculptures by Paul Gauguin and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner.
The night’s prospects looked bright early on, and bidders in the room, buzzing over the looming star lot that would be the ninth on the block, jumped into the action often, disrupting what are often tête-à-têtes between specialists on the side hanging on telephones.
A Gauguin wood sculpture of a Tahitian woman from around 1902–03—the model was reportedly sleeping with the artist’s chief nemesis on the island, a Catholic bishop—had Christie’s reps Zan Serafin and Conor Jordan locked in competition, until a rogue bid from the floor added a new dimension to the fight, and from there they bid up the price to a $27.5 million hammer, or $31 million with the buyer’s premium, garnering the first applause of the New York sales.
After a Cézanne drew $20.9 million, over a $18 million high estimate (which is kind of totally bonkers for a tiny drawing but hey, it’s a Cézanne card-player work), it was Modigliani time, with a $75 million opening bid as the throat-clearer. It quickly jumped to $100 million with four bidders sniping at one another, and by the time it climbed to $120 million, the bidding had become a heated back and forth between Loic Gouzer, deputy chairman of postwar and contemporary, and Elaine Kwok, the director of education, Asia, their bidders over the phone pushing up the price by $3 million or $5 million at a time—until out of nowhere a bidder from the room jumped in at $142 million, the paddle-raise accompanied by a whoosh of torsos swiveling in their chairs to spy the potential buyer. It turned out to be dealer Hong Gyu Shin.
But that would be the final bid from the house on the lot, as it soon returned to Gouzer and Kwok. They went on for a while. Switching between cell phone and landline, and constantly jabbing at the devices, Gouzer would wiggle an outstretched hand until the raise of the hammer and then shout, “One second!” at Pylkkänen, who was behind the podium, before bidding $1 million more to an exhaling room. But eventually, after Kwok went up to $152 million, Gouzer said, “Out!” and the gavel came down, Kwok with the winning bid. Again, applause, this time quite loud for a sale room, exploded through Christie’s.
“It was just a client, and I’m disappointed that he didn’t get it,” Gouzer said post-sale, outside in the front courtyard, where he had bummed a much-deserved cigarette from a reporter. “But at some point, you have to say no. Everything has to end at some point.” (The buyer of the Modigliani, it has been reported, was Chinese financier Liu Yiqian.)
The rest of the sale was denouement, punctuated by a dead room short on bidding. Gouzer locked down a Lichtenstein for the person on the end of his phone for $13.4 million. David Zwirner picked up a Giacometti portrait of James Lord for $20.9 million. And then the passes started coming quick, with guaranteed works such as the de Kooning failing to find new homes. The most high-profile pass came when Naked Portrait on a Red Sofa (1989–1991), Freud’s sexually frank nude of his daughter, Bella, could not meet its minimum. It had been estimated to sell for between $20 million and $30 million. An adviser outside after the sale suggested that it might have been better to sell it in London, which is where the artist lived out his life and a place that lacks the puritan and repressed American mores that could object to the incestuous undertones of the work.
“There was a discussion internally about whether it should be in this sale,” said Brett Gorvy, chairman of postwar and contemporary, following the press conference, “but we achieved the world record for Freud in New York, and the client wanted to sell it in New York. But maybe we positioned it slightly aggressively.”
At the bitter end, London mega dealer Jay Jopling could be seen passing the lectern on his way out of the room as Pylkkänen announced that the auction’s final lot, a Christopher Wool, had failed to sell. That work, Untitled (The Show Is Over) (1990), certainly had a fitting name, given the sale’s unraveling toward the end. But for some, the market’s not in that bad a place when a man on the phone from China spends $170.4 million dollars on a painting in a matter of minutes.
“There’s so much money around, you see? It’s unlimited,” said dealer Tony Shafrazi, ever the optimist, who then proceeded to headlock Helly Nahmad and give him a playful noogie.
The New York sales continue Tuesday with the postwar and contemporary evening sale at Christie’s.
Correction, 11/10/2015, 9:20 a.m.: An earlier version of this post misstated the number of guaranteed lots. In total, about half of the lots were guaranteed. The post has been updated to reflect this.