High on the wall to the auctioneer’s right was a board that listed bids as they came in, and that immediately converted U.S. dollars into euros, pounds, yen, Swiss francs, Hong Kong dollars, and rubles. One could almost imagine that it was to this frenzied display of numbers that the auctioneer was raising his hammer, in a Thor-like summons: it wasn’t until the sale of the fifth lot, Gauguin’s Thérèse, that I figured out that an auction’s “realized price” was the “hammer price” plus the “buyer’s premium” (a misnomer, this—it’s actually Christie’s cut). This meant that the amount paid for Thérèse, which had the interesting provenance of having gone missing from art-world scrutiny for thirty-five years, in the hands of a private London collector, was the $27.5 million hammer price, plus an extra $3.465 million for Christie’s. At $5 million above the upper end of Christie’s estimated range for Thérèse, this amounted to a world record for a Gauguin sculpture. The buyer remained anonymous, suggesting that the unclad Thérèse may wind up sequestered for decades more from the public’s prying eyes.
Several pieces on offer did not have an estimated range at all. They were listed only as “Estimate on Request”—which basically meant “Buckle up, it’s going to be assloads of money.” These included Lichtenstein’s Nurse (realized price, $95.365 million), Picasso’s Homme à l’épée ($22.565 million), and the star of the evening, Modigliani’s Nu Couché. This latter work was the first “Estimate on Request” offering to appear on the rotating wall. It was also the first full nude of the night. There was a palpable shift in the mood of the room at the moment that it was rotated forward for viewing. Through most of the evening, the auction was a scene of divided attentions, but now everyone fixated on the sexy image that had been used to advertise the sale for weeks.
Prurient interest was all well and good, but the currency-converting bidding board would not wait. The auctioneer seemed to pull a figure out of his head to get things going. Why not start at $75 million? Why not indeed? He got that sum at once, and there was quick series of bids in $5 million increments. The bidding stalled for a moment at $110 million—this is when the click of camera shutters in the room became apparent, pulsing like locusts—and then the price ticked up again to $115 million and beyond. At $135 million, it slowed again, and a bidder’s representative asked whether the auctioneer would take $136 million, but the auctioneer sneered at this and insisted on at least $138 million. He got that, and in short order, the bid was bumped up to $140 million, and then $142 million. There was a long pause at this point, followed by another jump to $145 million, and then $148 million, and then $150 million, which saw another pause, and then a funny moment when another bidder’s representative pleaded for more time, “One second,” and the auctioneer misheard him as saying “One-seventy,” and nearly announced a bid of $170 million. But the mistake was caught and acknowledged, and the eager collector’s factotum was thus permitted to live another day.
There was just one final bid, $152 million, and the auctioneer lowered the hammer, which doubled here as the first clap in a hearty round of applause.
We later learned that Nu Couché had been purchased for a realized price of $170,405,000 by Chinese billionaire Liu Yiqian, who boasted an interesting provenance of his own, having once worked as a taxi driver. The amount he paid for the Modigliani represented 12.5 percent of his net worth. By the time I got home, Nu Couché was already listed on Wikipedia as the sixth most expensive piece of art in history, and news stories listed its realized price as the second highest ever paid at auction for any artwork.