Amedeo Modigliani’s “Nu Couché”, an early 20th century painting of a nude woman, sold for 170.4 million dollars on Monday, the second highest price ever paid at auction.
With this the work joined the illustrious 100-million-at-auction club, whose exclusive membership numbers in the single-digits and counts Picasso, Warhol, Munch, Giacometti, and Bacon among its contributors.
The sale price was high in general, but particularly so for a Modigliani, surpassing the $70.7 million his sculpture ‘Tête’ fetched last November, and dwarfing the modest sums his works drew while the artist was alive.
The ever-increasing figures paid out at auctions like the one on Monday continue to generate great interest in a society increasingly preoccupied by wealth discrepancy, but they mask an often-unprofitable reality.
While Christie’s, the auction house that sold the Modigliani, does not disclose its profits, its chief rival, Sotheby’s, does; and despite increasing sales, profits often fall.
The accelerating concentration of global wealth has allowed the mega-rich to play one house against another, extracting concessions, privileges, and price guarantees for wealthy sellers. In conjunction with the money spent on marketing to and wooing potential buyers these moves have left the two in less-than-enviable financial positions.
The real profits are made on wine, real estate, and lesser known works they also sell, where both companies spend less and exact more.
Despite this, however, it seems current trends are unlikely to change. The market for high-end artworks is dominated by the ultra-wealthy and in Piketty’s world their power is ever increasing.