Kicking off New York’s third straight market week, after the Frieze and Tefaf fairs and Christie’s Rockefeller extravaganza, Sotheby’s evening sale of Impressionist and Modern art on 14 May rang up $318.3m. Although that number appears to nearly double last year’s take of $173.8m, and even improve on November’s $269.7m result, nearly half was thanks to a single work: Amedeo Modigliani’s Nu couché (sur le côté gauche) (1917), which contributed $157.2m with fees.
With the auction record for a Modigliani nude standing at $170.4m, there was reason to believe that this example—some deemed it more commercially viable, given the subject’s more-demure pose; others said less desirable for being less explicit—could incite a bidding war. When lot 18, tagged with an estimate “in excess of $150m”, rolled around, two agonizing minutes passed during which Patti Wong, chairman of Sotheby’s Asia, looked to be on the verge of jumping in. But there was ultimately no advance on the $139m offered by a buyer the auction house had lined up ahead of the sale with an irrevocable bid. The painting was immediately crowned the most expensive in the firm’s 274-year history by auctioneer, president of Sotheby’s Europe and worldwide co-head of the Impressionist and Modern department Helena Newman.
That paradoxically large yet unfulfilling result drained what energy had been built with a solid early battle for the sale’s other star, Le Repos, Picasso’s beatific 1932 portrait of his teenage lover, Marie-Thérèse Walter, which sold for $36.9m with fees (est $25m to $35m) to an Asian private collector on the phone.
After the sale, Sotheby’s worldwide co-head of Impressionist and Modern art Simon Shaw underscored the “velocity” of appreciation in the market for the top two lots, noting that the Modigliani last sold for $42m five years ago, and the Picasso for $7.9m in 2007. “It was a fantastic price for a fantastic picture”, adds Shaw’s colleague Brooke Lampley, who heads the department in New York, of Le Repos. “But that person still got a bargain.”
More ominous, perhaps, were the 13 lots that went unsold as attention flagged in the room—including about half of the Picassos, which made up a quarter of the catalogue. Femme au chien (1953) was bought in at $11m, as was Femme assise (1949), at $5m. A tender Rose Period gouache, Famille d’Arlequin (1905), however, brought $11.5m from a bidder on the phone with Wong. Approximately 25% of the evening’s buyers were Asia based, according to Sotheby’s.