It has been a superlative auction season in New York with sales of Impressionist, modern, and contemporary art totaling more than $2 billion. Christie’s reported a decline from last November with sales of $968 million, and Sotheby’s increased to $978 million notwithstanding a poor third quarter and concern about the margins on its $500 million guarantee for the Taubman collection.
The bigger news is the November 9 evening sale of Amedeo Modigliani’s Nu Couché (Reclining Nude). Christie’s sold the work for $170.4 million, setting a record for Modigliani and making it the second most expensive painting ever sold at auction. The painting came from a private collection in Switzerland and has only been on public exhibition twice during the last 45 years. Unfortunately, it may be some time again before it is exhibited.
Nu Couché was likely first shown at Galerie Berthe Weill in Paris in 1917. That was Modigliani’s only solo exhibition, and it was brief. The nudes were censored and the show was closed by the police. Nu Couché reappeared at Galerie Bing & Cie in Paris in 1925 and at the Venice Biennale in 1930, and was acquired by Gianni Mattioli in 1949. Mattioli loaned the work to museums frequently through the 1950s. His daughter, the art historian Laura Mattioli, inherited his collection in 1977 and is rumored to be the anonymous consigner of Nu Couché.
The painting, with an estimate of $100 million, was acquired last week with a phone bid by Liu Yiqian for $170.4 million. The Chinese billionaire and his wife, Wang Wei, have built a collection of more than 2,300 works for the Long Museum in Shanghai. The couple founded the Long Museum and Wei is its director. With locations in Pudong and West Bund, it is the largest private museum in China.
Yiqian is best (or worst) known for drinking from a 500-year-old Ming dynasty cup that he acquired at auction for $36 million and charged to his AmEx (for the reward points!) last year. He is also known to take advantage of free trade zones. Importing art to mainland China incurs VAT and customs duties from 17 to 34 percent, so collectors and dealers store works in freeports, which are not subject to import or transaction taxes. Yiqian and a museum spokesperson have stated that Nu Couché will be shown at the Long Museum in 2017, but a vault in Le Freeport West Bund is almost certainly its next destination.
When Nu Couché arrives at the Long Museum, a public exhibition is uncertain. It was censored by French police in 1917 and by American media in 2015. Bloomberg, CBS, CNBC, and CNN blurred images of the painting, and Financial Times covered it with black rectangles. Censorship is very likely in China where authorities regularly remove works or close exhibitions that they deem “pornographic” or politically sensitive, even in private museums and galleries.
Perhaps the Long Museum, with increased international attention, will extend enough cultural influence to ensure that Nu Couché returns to public exhibition after so long in private collections.