For years, the oeuvre of the great Italian artist Amedeo Modigliani remains the center of attention when we look at conspiracies and frauds of all sorts. Yet, these continuous fraud scandals and enormous auction prices do not stop many art collectors from buying his works. But why is Modigliani so appealing to both art collectors and art forgers? Continue reading to find out more about the fascinating history of fake Modiglianis.
Who was Amedeo Modigliani?
Amedeo Modigliani is one of the most prominent Italian Modernists. His works are also one of the most expensive on the art market. Modigliani first studied the Italian Old Masters in Florence and then moved to Paris, where he was exposed to African art and Parisian avant-garde movements. These influences gave birth to his unique and recognizable painting style. However, he was often unappreciated by his contemporaries.
Although Modigliani is best known for his paintings, he also made sculptures during a particular period of his life. He was influenced by a friend, the Romanian sculptor Constantin Brâncuşi who introduced him to the process. Modigliani was poor so he could not afford to buy stone, let alone marble, but he used stone blocks stolen from construction sites. He actually preferred sculpture to painting, stating that he liked the material resisting his hand. But this passion was rather short-lived. As a child he contracted tuberculosis, which left consequences that worsened because of his constant inhaling of stone dust. So, unfortunately, his rapidly deteriorating health made the artist switch back to painting.
Modigliani was struggling to get recognized by the art world and he developed an addiction to alcohol and drugs. These addictions affected his frail health even more. In 1920, when he was 35, Modigliani died in absolute poverty with his lover and fellow artist Jeanne Hébuterne by his side. On the next day after his death, inconsolable Hébuterne, eight months pregnant, threw herself out of her parents’ apartment window.
Why Are Modigliani’s Works So Expensive?
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Modigliani’s paintings keep beating their own price records year after year, despite numerous forgery scandals and attribution issues. In 2015 the work Reclining Nude was sold to an anonymous Chinese collector for a striking sum of $170 million. But why would someone pay so much for a single painting?
Part of Modigliani’s appeal lies in his unique style. The influence of Egyptian and African art layered on top of classical Italian art education resulted in a one-of-a-kind portraiture style that was deeply psychological, sophisticated, and shocking to Modigliani’s contemporaries. However, many experts argue that the reason for such extreme popularity is the myth of the genius tortured artist that follow Modigliani. His dramatic life story, turbulent personal relationships, and tragic death all affected his later popularity. He was an unrecognized genius, loved by women and hated by art collectors. Modigliani’s short but eventful story was romanticized over the years, giving him the appraisal he had never seen during his short life.
Still, Modigliani himself did not have an ounce of doubt over his genius. He deliberately avoided joining art movements and schools and kept his practice to himself despite being in the center of the bohemian Parisian life. He knew he would be appreciated at some point and was right.
Why Do Art Forgers Love Modigliani So Much?
There are so many expensive and recognizable artists, but Modigliani seems to be a particular favorite of many art forgers. According to some experts, up to 70% of known Modigliani’s works were not actually made by him. There are multiple reasons why art forgers choose to create fake Modiglianis.
One of the reasons is his signature style with expressive lines, elongated faces, and hypnotizing eyes. That does not mean, however, that his style is easy to forge. Modigliani’s works feature a very specific set of proportions and angles, as well as the complicated treatment of color and texture.
Gaps in history are also valuable to art forgers. Neither the art dealers nor Modigliani kept a thorough track of his works. He worked fast, often finishing a painting in a few hours. He also often handed out his drawings to total strangers in exchange for their services. He frequently paid his bills in bars with his artworks. The artist was also known for mercilessly destroying his art in moments of despair. All of this makes Modigliani a perfect candidate for art forgery. The work of preserving Modigliani’s legacy started decades after his death when his daughter Jeanne became old enough to fight for her father’s recognition.
Case Study 1: The Floating Heads
In 1984, Livorno, the birthplace of the artist, was shaken by remarkable news. In the year of Amedeo Modigliani’s hundredth birthday, three carved stone heads were found in a local canal. These were almost unanimously attributed to Modigliani. The timing was perfect since the discovery coincided with the opening of the Modigliani exhibition. There was also a plausible explanation for the sculpture’s appearance. According to art historians, in 1909 Modigliani experimented with sculpture. Dissatisfied with the result, he threw the stones out his studio window right in the canal.
However, the excitement did not last long. Several days after the groundbreaking discovery, three Livornese art students stepped forward and confessed to the forgery of one of the heads. They explained it as a harmless prank that was supposed to honor the master’s legacy.
The second forger revealed himself soon. A local underappreciated artist named Angelo Froglia insisted that his forgery was not a joke, however. It was a conscious attempt to highlight how the media buzz caused by a discovery could cloud the judgments of not only the public but many renowned experts as well. However, Froglia accidentally smudged his sculptures with chemical tar used for road pavement, which was non-existent in Modigliani’s time.
Case Study 2: The Exhibition That Never Happened
During his lifetime, Modigliani had just one solo show. It was a 1917 exhibition of nudes, which was almost immediately closed by the police on the grounds of offending public morals.
A similar event happened a hundred years later. In 2017, Palazzo Ducale in Genoa organized an exhibition of paintings by Modigliani. Several days before the show’s closure, the police arrived, seizing 21 works out of 60 on display. After expert analysis, 20 of them turned out to be fakes. An art collector and Modigliani expert Carlo Pepi was the one who tipped the police. He was also involved in the investigation of the stone heads incident in 1984. The scandal caused a wave of investigations all over Europe. In 2018, French museums launched a thorough check of the 29 works by Modigliani. However, the officials never published the results of the research to the general public.
Case Study 3: The Cursed Catalogue Raisonné
A catalogue raisonné is a definitive collection of all known and proven works by a single artist compiled in a single publication. To create such a compilation, art historians spend years, if not decades, carefully bringing the pieces together and checking every work’s authenticity. Moreover, it has to be updated every several years as new discoveries happen.
Normally, one catalogue raisonné is more than enough for one artist. But not for Modigliani: he has six of them, with the seventh being in the process of making. None of the existing catalogs are completely reliable. In 2018, Christian Parisot, an expert involved in one of the catalogs, was sentenced to two years in prison for forging 77 drawings by Modigliani’s partner Jeanne Hébuterne.
The most recent attempt to compile a definitive catalogue raisonné belongs to art historian Marc Restellini. For years, Restellini conducted research using the latest technologies to uncover the truth behind many Modiglianis on the art market. Moreover, Restellini insists that the identified fakes should be destroyed to protect the integrity of the artist’s oeuvre. The book was supposed to come out in 2019. Although Restellini claims that he’s still doing the work, the delay might be explained by the fact that he received numerous death threats for conducting his research.
The Mystery of Amedeo Modigliani
Why would someone be so angry at the objective truth to threaten the life of an art expert? Because not everyone is interested in revealing the truth. The people objecting to the research on Modigliani are not necessarily forgers or fraudulent art dealers protecting their way of income.
Some of them are art experts who built their reputations on discoveries and attributions. Exposing forgeries could be a death sentence to their reputation. There are also clients who spend hundreds of million on art. For many of these people, art is an investment, not a historical artifact, which would turn into ashes once proved worthless. To definitively mark all of the fake Modiglianis as fakes would also mean uncovering the ugliest corners of the art market and ruining the schemes carefully orchestrated over the decades after the artist’s death.