How Taxi Driver-Turned-Billionaire Bought A $170.4 Million Modigliani Painting

Amedeo Modigliani’s “Nu Couché” via Christie's
Amedeo Modigliani’s “Nu Couché” via Christie’s

Once upon a time Chinese taxi driver Liu Yiqian was making a modest living. Fast forward to 2015 and he’s billionaire art collector who just paid the second-highest price for an artwork at auction.

At Christie’s “Artist’s Muse” themed auction this Monday, November 9th 2015, Liu Yiqian acquired Amedeo Modigliani’s “Nu Couché” (1917-18) for an impressive $170.4 million. It is true; anything is possible in the wonderful world of art. This auction was specifically designed to bring in the biggest international buyers of the world’s most expensive art, and Modigliani’s nudes are the golden standard for paintings of the 20th century.

In response to apprehensions that the “Nu Couché” would be too racy for some collectors, Christie’s specialist in postwar and contemporary art, Ana Maria Celis noted, “This painting leaps off the page as the most vibrant, sexual, lyrical of the catalogue raisonné.”

The deal was a pre-meditated recipe for success for seller Laura Mattioli Rossi, who was guaranteed a minimum price of $100 million. Christie’s recent ‘themed’ auctions have seen price guaranteeing become a major trend. They promise prices to entice owners to put their best works up for sale, a chancy deal that could leave the auction house with an extremely costly unsold artwork. In this case, moments prior to the sale Christie’s revealed that a third party had joined in to share the risk, as well as any earnings above Rossi’s guaranteed price.

The nine-figure number put Modigliani’s “Nu Couché” right into the $100 Million at Auction Club. His work is now the 10th piece to be sold at this level, in good company with the likes of three Picasso’s, a Warhol, Munch, Bacon and three Giacometti’s.

Not only was this a major feat for Christie’s (who raked in a total of $494.1 million), it was a memorable note to Modigliani’s struggle during his lifetime. The Italian artist passed in 1920 from tuberculosis, at what now would be a young age of 35. A year prior to his death Modigliani attempted to sell the entire contents of his Paris studio for a mere $300 (what would be $4,700 today). If only he would’ve known what his worth would be in 2015.