The art market gets giddier

Amedeo Modigliani’s Nu couché (sur le côté gauche)
Nu couché: the bidding starts at $150m

Art that fetched $27m in 2003 is now expected to fetch six times that. Can it be worth it?

In a spring season full of excess, here’s news that’s hard to top,” says Abby Schultz in Barron’s Penta magazine. Sotheby’s in New York is auctioning Amedeo Modigliani’s Nu couché (sur le côté gauche) on Monday (the painting is pictured), with a record-breaking estimate of $150m. But while that news may be a great way to drum up some extra publicity for the sale (if any extra were needed), it isn’t actually as remarkable as it at first seems.

Once you’ve come to terms with all the zeros – and let’s face it, $150m is no small change in anybody’s pocket – the reality is that headline-grabbing paintings such as this tend to sell for well in excess of their estimates. Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi, which fetched the highest-ever price for a painting at auction at $450m last November, “only” came with a pre-sale figure of $100m. And Pablo Picasso’s Les Femmes d’Alger was valued at $140m ahead of its sale in 2015. It ended up going for $179m. So, the $150m for Nu couché will probably also end up looking conservative (a smaller, similar painting by the artist sold for $170m in 2015, after all). But if it doesn’t, somebody has already offered to pay at least the estimate. The question now, says Colin Gleadell in The Daily Telegraph, is merely “whether anyone will pay more”.

Yet perhaps the real question ought to be: why would anybody pay more? Sure, Modigliani is celebrated as having “reinvented the nude for the modern era”. And the painting from 1917, which is the headliner at Sotheby’s Impressionist & Modern Art sale next week, was also the star attraction at the Tate Modern’s recent exhibition of the artist’s nudes. But even so, it is still one of 22 reclining nudes that Modigliani painted in the three years to 1919 – so while it might seem comical to think of it in pure supply and demand terms, the fact is that Modigliani nudes are not as rare as you might think. The painting has also soared in value in a relatively short space of time. When Nu couché last came up for auction in 2003, it fetched just shy of $27m. Is it really worth nearly six times that amount now?

The art market is certainly “giddy after a decade of tumult”, says Sangeeta Singh-Kurtz for Quartz. Since the financial crisis in 2008 (“the last big year for art”), top-tier artists have seen their works rise in value by more than 50%, “fuelled by a new generation of ultra-wealthy buyers”. That, for New York gallery owner Sean Kelly, is a problem. “For me, collecting is not about whether I’m going to make a lot of money,” he tells The New York Times. But now, as far as the wider market goes, “it’s only about money”. At the start of the month, Kelly launched “Collect Wisely”, a campaign featuring billboards splayed with “Connoisseurship is not a dirty word”, and phrases such as “Will history remember you as an investor or a collector?” Chances are, whoever ends up buying Nu couché on Monday, will be numbered among the former rather than the latter. Whether it ends up being a good investment, however, remains to be seen.


Expert squabbles boost values

A painting’s value is, of course, not just about aesthetics. Getting the provenance right can have a drastic effect on a seller’s bottom line. Take, for example, a portrait of Clara Serena (pictured), the first child of Peter Paul Rubens (with his wife, Isabella Brant), which was painted in around 1623. When New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art first sold it five years ago, it believed that it was by a Peter Paul Rubens: portrait of Clara Serenafollower of Rubens rather than Rubens himself. However, it sold for $626,500 – far in excess of its $30,000 upper estimate. That alone was “an indication the buyer may have suspected it was a much more valuable work by Rubens himself”, notes James Pickford in the Financial Times.

The buyer had the painting cleaned – removing the layers of dirt, as well as the green overpaint – and then re-evaluated. Experts examined the painting and agreed that it was, in fact, painted by the Flemish master. The subject, Clara, had died at the age of 12 of the plague, and it is now believed the painting had never been intended for public view. And for what it’s worth, the Metropolitan stands by its decision to sell the painting, stating that the question of attribution has been debated in the past and will continue to debated. That won’t trouble the seller too much when it goes up for auction as part of the Christie’s Old Masters sale on 5 July in London. It is expected to fetch between £3m and £5m.


Auctions

Going…

George Harrison’s first electric guitar (pictured), which he played as a member of The Quarrymen in the late 1950s before they evolved into The Beatles, is expected to fetch between $200,000 and $300,000 at a sale held by Julien’s Auctions at New York’s Hard Rock Cafe on 19 May.

Hoffner Club 40: George Harrison’s first electric guitar

Harrison reportedly traded his acoustic guitar for the Hoffner Club 40 with Ray Ennis of The Swinging Blue Jeans – the band best known for Hippy Hippy Shake. One of his favourite guitars, Harrison gave it away as a prize, which was won by the late Frank Dostal of the German band Faces. His widow, Mary, a member of the 1960s Liverpool group, The Liverbirds, is reportedly the seller.

Gone…

The guitar that blues legend Stevie Ray Vaughan used in his first studio recording sold for $250,000 at Heritage Auctions in his hometown of Dallas last month. The 1951 Fender – a present from his brother, Jimmy, in the late 1960s – had been expected to make around $400,000. The name “Jimbo” is carved on the back. The bluesman “learned his craft” on it, says biographer Craig Hopkins, adding that it had “considerable historical significance”. Vaughan traded it in 1971, mentioning in an interview in 1989, the year before he died in a helicopter crash, aged 35, how much he’d like to have it back.