On November 4, Sotheby’s New York kicked off the fall auction season 2015 with the “Masterworks” sale featuring the art collection of the auction house’s ex-chairman A. Alfred Taubman, who died this spring at the age of 91. The first evening sale realized an impressive $377 million total. Its star lot, “Portrait of Paulette Jourdain” (1919), garnered the highest price of the night. This Amedeo Modigliani’s masterpiece, one of the most popular paintings in the late billionaire’s art collection, starting at $17 million was eventually sold for $42.8 million exceeding the estimate of $25 million.
Paulette Jourdain, the girl depicted in the portrait, was born in 1904 in the coastal town of Concarneau in Brittany. She arrived in Paris in early 1919 and was hired as a domestic worker by Leopold Zborowski, Modigliani’s friend and art dealer. In a short time, Paulette became Zborowski’s assistant in his home business operations, until in 1926 he opened his own fine art gallery. Thus, the 15-year-old Paulette met Amedeo Modigliani, who immediately asked the girl to come to his studio and pose for a portrait. She came for numerous sittings between her school classes, and the famous artist had managed to make many drawings of her. Modigliani called his young muse “fillette,” which means a little girl. Obviously, Modigliani wanted to make another portrait of Paulette, but this was prevented by the artist’s poor health that led to his untimely death on 24 January 1920. Paulette was present during his last days and helped Leopold Zborowski organize the funeral. Later, Paulette posed for other artists too, including Moise Kisling and Chaim Soutine. In 1924, she gave birth to Leopold Zborowski’s daughter who was named Jacqueline. After his death in 1932, Paulette Jourdain became a fine art gallery owner.
The touching and heartfelt “Portrait of Paulette Jourdain” is one of the most famous paintings by Modigliani because of the specific role the girl played at the end of the artist’s short life. However, although the final cost of this work exceeded the estimated price, it has not set a record for Modigliani’s paintings. His most expensive work remains “Reclining Nude with Blue Cushion” (1917) sold for a handsome $121 million in 2012.
Another ten masterpieces from A. Alfred Taubman’s art collection soared past a $10 million mark. The “record-holders” have become works by Mark Rothko, Clifford Still, Willem de Kooning, Egon Schiele, and Frank Stella, whose paintings brought a total of $13.5 million. It’s interesting that Pablo Picasso’s “Woman Seated on a Chair” was sold for $20 million missing the low estimate by $5 million. In general, Sotheby’s New York hoped to get about $500 million, but the sale realized a sum on the low end of the presale expectations. Nonetheless, 90 percent of the offered lots have found their buyers.