Nu Couche (Sur Le Cote Gauche) by Modigliani sells for $157.2 mln., record sum for Sotheby’s House, just short of top price for artist. It is said by Sotheby's to be the greatest painting from Modigliani's series of once-controversial nudes. Completed in 1917, it was also the largest painting of his career and became the fourth most expensive work ever sold at auction.

The Modigliani for sale on Monday was one of a celebrated series of nudes commissioned from by his Paris dealer Léopold Zborowski (for a stipend of 15 francs per day). The painting was consigned to Sotheby’s by the billionaire Irish horse breeder and art collector John Magnier, who had bought the work at auction in 2003 for $26.9 million, which at the time was a high for the artist.

For today, Modigliani is the third most sold at the auction artist after Leonardo da Vinci and Pablo Picasso.

The work, a portrait of a nude model peering back over her shoulder at a viewer looking in from behind, went into the evening as the highest-priced lot in Sotheby’s Impressionist and modern art sale—and was touted by the house shortly after the sale for fetching the highest auction price in Sotheby’s history.

Auctioneer Helena Newman started bidding for Nu couché (sur le côté gauche) at $125 million (an estimate on request of $150 million) and slowly counted up, with a palpable quietude in the room. The first, and winning, bid came in from a bidder on the phone with Simon Shaw, Sotheby’s co-head of Impressionist and Modern art worldwide. The total sale price including the buyer’s premium after a hammer price of $139 million became $157.2 million.

Left: Sotheby's Impressionist and Modern art evening sale on May 14, 2018. Photo: Eileen Kinsella
Амедео Модильяни. Лежащая обнажённая (на левом боку)
Лежащая обнажённая (на левом боку)
Амедео Модильяни
1917, 89.5×146.4 см

Painted a century ago, Nu couché (sur le côté gauche) is the greatest work from the iconic series in which Amedeo Modigliani reinvented the nude for the Modern era. The Modigliani canvas is part of a prized series of nude paintings, produced between 1916 and 1919, that caused a scandal when they were first shown in 1917 in Paris. When exhibited in Berthe Weill’s gallery for what would be the only one-man exhibition that Modigliani during his lifetime, a sizable crowd outside raised the curiosity of the police, who shut down the show after two days. (Only two drawings sold.)

Today, the series is recognized as one of the seminal achievements in Modern painting.
Амедео Модильяни. Сидящая обнаженная с рубашкой
Сидящая обнаженная с рубашкой
Амедео Модильяни
1917, 92×67.5 см

Modigliani began painting nudes in 1908. In total, Modigliani completed 22 reclining nudes and thirteen seated nudes between 1916 and 1919, with the majority – including the present work – painted in 1917.
In addition to being the finest example from the series, Nu couché (sur le côté gauche) was a "face" of a recent major retrospective in the Tate Modern Art Gallery in London. It is distinguished further as the largest painting of Modigliani’s entire oeuvre – measuring nearly 58 inches (147 centimeters) across – and the only one of his horizontal nudes to contain the entire figure within the canvas. The majority of the 22 reclining nudes from the series are found in museums, with particular depth in the United States: the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, The Museum of Modern Art and The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York each hold three examples. Outside of the United States, institutions with reclining nudes include the Long Museum in Shanghai and The Courtauld Gallery in London.
"Modigliani depicted his models as confident and self-possessed in their sexuality. Nu Couche is an incredibly sensual image, with the sitter's gaze meeting the viewer's head-on in truly mesmerising fashion. While situating itself within a classical canon of nude painting, the work is radically innovative in style." - said Simon Shaw, co-head worldwide of Sotheby's impressionist and modern art department.

Left: Amedeo Modigliani’s Nu couché (sur le côté gauche), 1917. COURTESY SOTHEBY’S

Also read: Art scandal: Modigliani paintings in 2017 Genoa exhibition denounced as fakes

Амедео Модильяни. Лежащая обнаженная
Лежащая обнаженная
Амедео Модильяни
1917, 92×60 см

The auction record for Modigliani, which some expected to fall at this auction, was set in 2015, when Nu couché (1917–18) sold for $170.4 million—above its $100 million estimate—at Christie’s in New York, making it then the second-highest price ever for a work sold at auction. That painting was purchased by the Chinese collector Liu Yiqian.

Based on materials from Sotheby's, NY Times, Artnet.

Title illustration: Amedeo Modigliani "Nu couché" at Sotheby's Impressionist and Modern art evening sale.