“It took awhile for the market to catch up,” Wayne said. “He was always considered a big name, but there was a lull for some reason.” But the museum shows and subsequent scholarly attention created a turning point in the market. By 2010, a Modigliani sculpture sold for $57.7 million at Christie’s in Paris.
“One of his sculptures came up in 1995 with an estimate of $1 to $2 million and it didn’t sell,” Wayne recalled. “Fifteen years later, there are people battling it out.”
Shaw said that the timing of the sale was canny, as the Tate Modern
just staged a blockbuster show devoted to Modigliani’s nudes, which Wayne said were indisputably the most celebrated, and coveted, works in his oeuvre. Happily for Sotheby’s, Monday’s Nu couché
was on the cover of the Tate show’s catalogue, and was displayed on ads for the exhibition that were pasted all over London. That give some credence to the Sotheby’s selling point that this is simply the best Modigliani nude.
“What is extremely unlikely these days with great modern masters is to get an A-plus picture,” Shaw said. “To be able to say, ‘Nobody in the world will ever be able to buy a better example’ is something that, for artists like
or Renoir or
, you’re never able to say hand-on-heart. Here, this is the largest, most ambitious picture he ever made. This is the last chance saloon.”
The work was first unveiled
in Hong Kong, and Shaw said there is a lot of interest in it from Asian collectors. Yiqian, who bought the record-setting Modigliani nude in 2015, placed that work in his private museum in Shanghai. Shaw also noted this nude is the right nude for the #MeToo era, since it questions the relationship between the gaze of the male painter and the agency of the naked female muse. In this work, the viewer only sees her from behind, and the gaze is powerful and direct—a revolutionary way to empower the female sitter in a portrait, and a method, Shaw said, that was pioneered by Modigliani to reflect a new sense of independence for Parisian women that came with the upheaval of World War I.
“She’s in charge—she’s very much in control and in possession of her sexuality,” Shaw said. “In traditional painting, across the centuries of the nude, there’s a particular kind of gaze that’s implied between a male viewer and a to-some-degree objectified female nude subject. Modigliani is trying to reverse that. She is the strong powerful woman. It’s her gaze, in fact, that holds you.”