Chinese ex-taxi driver turned tycoon pays S$241.9m for Modigliani nude

Christie's auctioneer Jussi Pylkkanen auctions Amedeo Modigliani's Nu couche during a curated auction in New York.
Christie's auctioneer Jussi Pylkkanen auctions Amedeo Modigliani's Nu couche during a curated auction in New York.PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW YORK (AFP) - The Chinese collector who bought a sensuous Modigliani nude for US$170.4 million (S$241.94 million) in New York is former taxi driver turned tycoon Liu Yiqian, who has founded a museum in Shanghai.

Christie’s confirmed that Modigliani’s Nu Couche was purchased by the Long Museum, which Mr Liu and his wife Wang Wei founded.

Mr Liu, who is one of China’s biggest art collectors, told The New York Times that he had bought the painting and intended to exhibit it to mark the museum’s fifth anniversary.

“It will be an opportunity for Chinese art lovers to see good artworks without having to leave the country,” he was quoted as saying by the Times.

  • THE LONG MUSEUM IN SHANGHAI

    Ms Wang Wei, co-founder of the Long Museum in Shanghai, with Beige Portrait by artist Yu Hong.

  • In the February issue of The Life, ST's digital magazine, you can find out about the Long Museum from its co-founder Wang Wei (above), Mr Liu Yiqian's wife, and see photos of some art pieces from their collection.

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The couple founded two museums in Shanghai – the Long Museum Pudong, which opened in 2012, and the Long Museum West Bund.

“Modigliani’s works already have a pretty established value on the market,” Mr Liu told the newspaper.

“This work is relatively nice compared to his other nude paintings. And his nude paintings have been collected by some of the world’s top museums.”

The 1917-18 picture sold after a frantic nine-minute bidding war on the first time the painting has ever come to auction.

It was the second highest price ever achieved at auction for a work or art. Applause erupted in the packed room when the sale concluded.

It was just US$9 million shy of the world record of US$179.4 million for Picasso’s The Women Of Algiers (Version 0) – which the auction house sold in New York last May in a record-breaking spring season.

The Modigliani oil on canvas depicts a naked woman reclining on a luscious red couch and blue cushion, and provoked a scandal when it was first exhibited by the Italian artist in Paris.

It has since been exhibited at some of the finest art galleries all over the world including at the Royal Academy of Arts in London.

The previous record for a Modigliani was US$70.7 million set in November 2014 for a sculpture.

The evening auction raked in a total of US$491.35 million, busting pre-sale estimates of US$443 million, marking a return to form after a sluggish opening auction at Sotheby's suggested that bumper profits might be levelling off.

The evening sale entitled The Artist's Muse also set a new record at auction for US pop artist Roy Lichtenstein, with his Nurse selling for US$95.37 million.

That made it a shrewd investment for the seller, who acquired the iconic piece of American pop art and comic book-inspired portrait for US$1.65 million in 1995.

The price reached for the shocked looking blonde with sexy red lips smashed the previous record for a Lichtenstein - US$56 million paid for Women with Flowered Hat in 2013.

Simple yet mysterious, the painting, measuring 122cm by 122cm appears as fresh today as when it was painted in 1964, and the image remains popular across the world.

It comes from the height of the US pop art movement and is a regular in retrospectives on Lichtenstein, who died in 1997.

Monday's sale follows record-breaking sales in New York in May, when more than US$2.6 billion of art was sold in 10 days.

A Courbet, Femme Nue Couchee, sold for US$15.29 million - four times higher than the artist's previous record of US$3.74 million.

Another highlight was a work in wood by Paul Gauguin, Therese, which fetched US$30.97 million, setting a new world auction record for a sculpture by the French artist.

Another standout was a Paul Cezanne, L'homme a la pipe, which went for US$20.89 million.

But 10 lots failed to sell, including a nude portrait of Bella Freud, the fashion designer daughter of British painter Lucian Freud, which was estimated to be worth US$20-30 million.