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Trumpeting a Strumpet; Slammer to Glamor: Modigliani & Taubman Faceoff in Auction Wars

I had a did-he-really-say-that moment early last month, when listening to Sotheby’s CEO Tad Smith woo stock analysts during the auction house’s second-quarter conference call: Smith, new to Sotheby’s, glowingly cited the late A. Alfred Taubman, the auction house’s criminally convicted former chairman, as a role model.

Taubman had done jail time for his role in the darkest period in Sotheby’s’s recent history—the price-fixing scandal that involved collusion with Christie’s in setting the level of commissions. In a related class-action antitrust lawsuit, the auction houses agreed to a $512-million settlement.

Alfred Taubman, after his release from jail, about to attend Sotheby's May 2008 contemporary art auction Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Alfred Taubman, after his release from jail, about to attend Sotheby’s May 2008 contemporary art auction
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

These comments by Smith, which had seemed to me jarringly oblivious to past history, now make more sense:

Sotheby’s will further the revolutionary work begun in the 1980’s by Alfred Taubman…One of the great things, I think, that was brilliantly done in the ’80s and ’90s under the prior management was they took a company that was largely a business-to-business, dealer-based company and brought it into a very high-end business-to consumer company.

It now turns out that this burnishing of Taubman’s tarnished image came at a time when Smith was in the process of courting Taubman’s heirs for a mega-consignment—“more than 500 works stretching from antiquity to contemporary art, …valued in excess of $500 million,” possibly making it (depending on prices actually achieved) “the most valuable private collection ever offered at auction,” in the words of Sotheby’s announcement. (A slideshow of a few highlights is here.)

One of Taubman’s son’s, Robert, who reportedly recused himself from these discussions, is a member of Sotheby’s board.

In bad news for the Detroit Institute of Arts, Sotheby’s says that Taubman’s “entire collection is being sold, including works currently on loan to museums.” Mark Stryker of the Detroit Free Press reports that “at the time of Taubman’s death…, five 17th-century Old Master paintings were on loan to the DIA, …by Guercino, Pietro da Cortona, Valentin de Boulogne, Caracciolo and Matthias Stom.”

Sotheby’s blockbuster news stole some of the thunder from Christie’s own opening shot it the fall auction wars: Its announcement of what could prove to be the highest-valued lot of the coming season—Modigliani‘s “Nu couché (Reclining Nude),” 1917-18, estimated to bring more than $100 million.

My own reaction that painting was summed up in this tweet:

Here’s a better look at those two reclining nudes. The first, the one at Christie’s, is reportedly being sold by art historian Laura Mattioli Rossi, daughter of its previous owner, Gianni Mattioli:

Modigliani, "Nu couché (Reclining Nude), 1917-18 Christie's presale estimate: in excess of $100 million

Modigliani, “Nu couché (Reclining Nude), 1917-18
Christie’s presale estimate: in excess of $100 million

The second is in the collection of Metropolitan Museum, which received it from the late New York dealer Klaus Perls, a leading expert on the artist. To me, it is more satisfying in composition and inventiveness, less crudely erotic than the Christie’s version:

Modigliani, "Reclining Nude," 1917, Metropolitan Museum

Modigliani, “Reclining Nude,” 1917, Metropolitan Museum

The call of Christie’s siren brings to mind the pluses and minuses of that auction house’s last big money-magnet. I had dismissed it as a “tits-and-ass Picasso” that, in my view, had “plenty of eye-candy wall power but not much connoisseur allure”:

Picasso, “Les Femmes d’Alger (Version ‘O’),” 1955

Picasso, “Les Femmes d’Alger (Version ‘O’),” 1955
Sold at Christie’s in May for $179.39 million

One thing’s for certain: The Modigliani that Sotheby’s is selling from Taubman’s collection is self-effacingly demure, compared to Christie’s much pricier work by that artist:

Modigliani, “Portrait de Paulette Jourdain,” ca. 1919 Sotheby's presale estimate: $25-35 million

Modigliani, “Portrait de Paulette Jourdain,” ca. 1919
Sotheby’s presale estimate: $25-35 million

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