Art & Culture

Chinese billionaire buys Modigliani for $170M

Mary Childs and Patti Waldmeir
Timothy A. Clary | AFP | Getty Images

The billionaire founder of a Shanghai museum paid $170.4 million for an Amedeo Modigliani nude at Christie's in New York on Monday, carrying a night in which global art buyers focused their attention on a few masterworks but left other lots unsold.

The Italian painter's "Nu Couché (Reclining Nude)" went under auctioneer Jussi Pylkkanen's hammer for $152 million before fees, marking the second-highest price for a work sold at auction and far exceeding the estimate of about $100 million.

The portrait prompted a back-and-forth rally between half a dozen bidders, most over the phone, pushing the price up until it was sold to Liu Yiqian, who with his wife Wang Wei founded two of Shanghai's best-known private art museums, the Long Museum Pudong and Long Museum West Bund.

Mr Liu is one of China's many rags-to-riches billionaires who are determined to surround themselves with the finest things in life, from traditional Chinese furniture to modern artworks from China and abroad. He left school as a teenager to sell handbags and worked as a Shanghai taxi driver, making his fortune trading stocks in the Wild West atmosphere of Chinese exchanges in the 1990s.

The painting someone paid $170 million for
The painting someone paid $170 million for

He and his wife have assembled one of China's most valuable private art collections but Mr Liu caused controversy in July by drinking tea from a 500-year-old ceramic bowl he said once belonged to a Chinese emperor, which he had bought at auction for $36 million.

Mr Liu's biography on the Long Museum website says the couple has been collecting art for 20 years. "By acquiring important representative artworks in each historical period, they have gradually established three main subjects of collection, namely Chinese traditional art, Chinese revolutionary art and modern and contemporary art".

Christie's also attracted strong interest in big-ticket items including a Roy Lichtenstein, which went for $95.4 million including fees, and a Pablo Picasso, sold for $22.6 million with fees. Twelve works sold for hammer prices of more than $10 million.

The "hammer total" for the night came in at $435 million, just shy of Christie's low estimate of $438.9 million. Including its "buyer's premium", the New York-based auction house drew in $491.4 million.

But the sale reinforced the picture of rival auctioneer Sotheby's, described on Monday by its chief executive Tad Smith as "discerning, quality-oriented, but careful". Seven of the last 10 lots did not make their reserve price and went unsold, including works by Picasso, Lichtenstein and Chuck Close.

More from the Financial Times:

New York art auction sounds gloomy note
'Making Africa' at the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao
Snapshot: 'Trees of Burgundy', by Wayne Gudmundson

Those paintings had been guaranteed by Christie's, as had a work by Willem de Kooning that wilted at $12 million, below its $14 million low estimate, and a Lucian Freud that fell $1 million shy of its $20 million estimate. The cheapest works were a Jeff Koons picture and another Lichtenstein that sold for hammer prices of $1.2 million.

In all, 71 per cent of lots sold, compared with 82 per cent at Phillips' 20th Century and Contemporary Art Evening Sale on Sunday, and 89.6 per cent at Sotheby's sale of the "Masterworks" in its former chairman's collection last week.

"I have no wish to dampen the markets in any way," Richard Feigen, a dealer, said after the sale, but contemporary and modern art "has become a parking lot for money" as central banks' policy of keeping interest rates low has inflated asset prices. If those policies change course, "it may dampen the market".

Brett Gorvy, Christie's chairman, said the auction house's second "curated" sale, which crosses genre and period to unite works under a single theme, was assembled over the summer amid volatility in financial markets, so it was "very, very important to see how strong" the market was for works over $100 million.

That there were eight bidders over that mark demonstrated how "dynamic the market is for the masterpiece level", he said, and showed demand was strong at the "magical moment" of "rarity, quality and beauty all represented in the same object".

Read MoreTwo signs that the market may be near a top

Many of the works had not come to market in years, making them more attractive to buyers. The Modigliani had not appeared on the open market for 100 years, Christie's Mr Pylkkanen said after the sale. He added that he did not see it as a bad thing that some works had failed to sell: "If they'd all sold we wouldn't be pushing the envelope," he said.

The Modigliani sale benefited from a handful of factors, according to Loic Gouzer, deputy chairman of postwar and contemporary art at Christie's, including its freshness to the market, its previous ownership and the quality of the work. The price difference between a good piece by an artist and a great one would expand "exponentially" over the years, he said.