A nude by Amedeo Modigliani sold for US$157.2 million at Sotheby’s on Monday, the highest auction result in Sotheby’s 274-year history, in an otherwise tepid sale.

The 1917 “Nu couche (sur le cote gauche)” led Sotheby’s sale of Impressionist and modern art in New York, accounting for half of the evening’s US$318.3 million tally. Of the 45 lots offered, 13 failed to find buyers, including pieces by Pablo Picasso, Henry Moore and Marc Chagall.

The seller of the Modigliani, Irish bloodstock billionaire John Magnier, had purchased it for US$26.9 million in 2003 at a Christie’s auction, making an almost sixfold increase in 15 years.

Like some of the top lots at the Rockefeller estate sale last week at Christie’s, the result masks a more complex picture. Sotheby’s unveiled the work in Hong Kong last month, targeting Asian clients who’ve been actively buying Impressionist and modern art in recent seasons.

Estimated at more than US$150 million, it was expected to smash Modigliani’s auction record of US$170.4 million, also for a nude, from 2015. The buyer of that painting was the Long Museum in Shanghai, founded by billionaire Liu Yiqian.

In the end only one bidder materialized -- a client who had agreed ahead of the auction to place an irrevocable bid that would ensure the work sells. As the bidding started at US$125 million, the room and the phone banks remained stubbornly silent, despite the auctioneer’s repeated appeals to Patti Wong, chairwoman of Sotheby’s Asia, to see if she would bid on behalf of a client. Wong only shook her head: negative.

High Expectations

“The expectation on the consignor’s behalf was set up so high -- they were talking about US$200 million – the second most expensive work of art ever sold," said Todd Levin, an art adviser who bid on works in the auction on behalf of clients.

The most expensive artwork ever sold -- “Salvator Mundi" by Leonardo Da Vinci -- fetched US$450.3 million in November. “That makes many people feel that it’s not something for them to consider, even for very high-net-worth people,” Levin said.

Like the Modigliani at Sotheby’s, a Picasso painting of a nude girl with a basket of flowers at the Rockefeller sale also went to a third-party guarantor, fetching US$115 million, which dampened the mood and raised questions about price resistance at the high end of the market.

“The guarantee scared off the competition, which set the stage for a rather anticlimactic all-time house record,” Evan Beard, National Art Services executive at U.S. Trust, said about the Modigliani guarantee.

While bidding was mostly muted, one highlight was Georgia O’Keeffe’s landscape, “Lake George with White Birch," which fetched US$11.3 million, almost twice the high estimate.

Full Week

Sotheby’s was first up this week for Impressionist, modern, postwar and contemporary auctions in New York, where US$1.6 billion of art is expected to sell on the heels of the US$832.6 million Rockefeller collection.

The salesroom at Sotheby’s was packed, with attendees including actor Leonardo DiCaprio and jeweler Laurence Graff. Outside, about 20 people protested the sale of works from the cash-strapped Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. “We must stop unethical deaccessions $$$ Is your museum next?" read one sign. Inside the auction house, a live jazz band performed and champagne was passed around.

A Picasso sold by Sue Gross, the ex-wife of money manager Bill Gross, fetched US$36.9 million, exceeding the high estimate and the 2000 purchase price of US$7.9 million. The 1932 work, “Le Repos,” is a portrait of Picasso’s lover Marie-Therese Walter. It was purchased by Wong for an Asian client, according to Sotheby’s. Part of the proceeds will go to charity through the Sue Gross Foundation.

--With assistance from Frederik Balfour