A Modigliani nude painting was sold to a Chinese buyer at Christie’s on Monday for $170.4 million, the second-highest price ever for a work of art at auction, as deep-pocketed collectors continue to pay, and pay big, for some rare masterpieces up for sale in this year’s autumn auctions season.

Christie's employees reveal Amedeo Modigliani's "Nu couche'" during a curated auction at Christie's in Manhattan Monday
Christie’s employees reveal Amedeo Modigliani’s “Nu couche’” during a curated auction in Manhattan Monday

The final price for the 1917-18 portrait “Nu couché” (Reclining Nude) — under the hammer for the first time ever — was second only to Picasso’s “Les femmes d’Alger” (Women of Algiers) which sold for $179 million at Christie’s in May.

Forbes identified the Chinese billionaire collector as Liu Yiqian and his wife Wang Wei. Asian collectors have been especially active in the art market for the past several seasons.

Some half-dozen bidders competed for the canvas, which had remained in the same private collection for some 60 years and was offered as the highlight of a specially curated “Artist’s Muse” sale comprising 34 works in total.

In a packed sales room marked by deliberate but determined competition, bidding started at $75 million – already more than Modigliani’s auction record of $70.7 million – and ticked upwards in $5 million increments before an unidentified telephone bidder prevailed at $152 million.

The final price was $170,405,000 including Christie’s’ commission of just over 12%. The auction house had estimated the canvas would fetch more than $100 million.

While nearly 30% of the “Artist’s Muse” offerings went unsold — Lucian Freud’s “Naked Portrait on a Red Sofa” was estimated at as much as $30 million but failed to sell — the auction took in $494.4 million in total. That was right in the middle of the pre-sale estimate of $442 million to $540 million.

Nodding to the sale’s unsold lots, Christie’s’ global president and auctioneer Jussi Pylkkanen said that was the risk of “pushing the envelope”. He noted some works were either not fresh to the market, or were perhaps aggressively priced.

But strong prices for top works that did sell bore witness to what Pylkkanen called “a masterpiece market” that was fomenting “extraordinary competition”.

A new record was set for an auction sale of work by Roy Lichtenstein, the pop artist best known for his vibrant, cartoon-style works. His 1964 painting “Nurse” fetched $95.4 million, within the $80 million to $100 million estimate.

Another artist record, for a Gauguin sculpture, was broken when “Thérèse” sold for just under $31 million, beating the $25 million estimate.

The autumn auctions continue Tuesday with Christie’s’ sale featuring works from the red-hot post-war and contemporary art category. Sotheby’s’ contemporary sale follows Wednesday.

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