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PRETTY PENNY

Is $100 million becoming the new minimum auction price for fine art?

Courtesy of Sotheby's
Published This article is more than 2 years old.

The most buzzed-about painting to go under Sotheby’s hammer next month is a nude by Italian artist Amedeo Modigliani, and it’s estimated to fetch at least $150 million. The current auction record for the artist is already a steep $170.4 million—but this 1917 painting, Nu couché (sur le côté gauche), or reclining nude, appears poised to break it.

The century-old painting—which is Modigliani’s largest and described as the greatest of his career—is often credited with reinventing the nude for the modern era. One of only five of Modigliani’s nudes ever to come up for auction, the 58-inch portrait is rumored to be for sale by Irish billionaire horse breeder John Magnier. The artwork’s provenance and rarity are positioning it to fetch a seriously pretty penny.

Still, that’s a lot of zeroes

Art is one of the most expensive asset classes (pdf) next to real estate, and the Modigliani estimate is actually the highest ever for a work of art. Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi fetched a record $450 million at auction last year and Picasso’s Les femmes d’Algers snagged $179 million in 2015. But both sold above their estimates of $100 million and $140 million, respectively, which were still below the Modigliani estimate.

Meanwhile, rival auction house Christie’s is likely to set its own record with the sale of The Peggy and David Rockefeller art collection this May. The wide-ranging collection, which includes works from the likes of Monet and Picasso, as well 18th-century porcelains, furniture, and jewelry, could top $1 billion. It’s a figure that would more than double the previous record for a single collection, the 2009 estate sale of fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent, which went for $484 million.

These record-setting sales are but the highest-profile elements of an art market giddy after a decade of tumult. The last big year for art was in 2008; the overall market peaked before falling more than 30% (paywall) during the global economic crisis. In fact, it was only last year that art finally overtook bluechip wines as an investment category, according to data from the Knight Frank Luxury Investment Index, making it once again the most popular investable asset for wealthy buyers.

Sebastian Duthy, director of market research firm Art Market Research, says that since the 2008 crisis, top-tier artists have seen their works appreciate by over 50%—an uptick fueled by a new generation of ultra-wealthy buyers. And the investments are only upping the demand on supply from those artists: “As long as investing in works of art remains popular, prices of the very best works by these artists are likely to continue to soar,” says Duthy.

Then again, the sale of nine-figure paintings could have to do with the staggering da Vinci lot, which smashed all previous records for art, and created a potential ripple effect. But Duthy says that while the da Vinci did sell for an extraordinary amount, it’s not necessarily far from the norm. A William de Kooning work, he notes, went to a hedge fund manager for around $300 million back in 2015.

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