Modigliani scholar faces trial for fraud

Christian Parisot is accused of faking drawings by the artist’s lover Jeanne Hébuterne

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Art historian and Modigliani specialist Christian Parisot is facing trial in Paris, accused of faking 77 drawings by Jeanne Hébuterne, the artist’s mistress and mother of his daughter, also called Jeanne. She committed suicide, pregnant and aged just 21, the day after Modigliani died in 1920.

Hébuterne was a minor artist, and is thought never to have sold any pieces. Her great-nephew, French lawyer Luc Prunet, inherited most of her work—drawings which she left to her brother André, Mr Prunet’s grandfather. In 2000 Mr Prunet lent about 60 drawings for the first major show to include Hébuterne works, “Modigliani and His Circle”, at the Cini Foundation in Venice. The exhibition was curated by Christian Parisot.

The two men then fell out, and Mr Prunet refused to lend any works to a travelling show which Mr Parisot arranged in Spain in 2002. The show was interrupted in Segovia when Mr Prunet had other works by Hébuterne seized, alleging they had been faked by Mr Parisot. This case has now been sent forward for trial in France.

According to the court-appointed specialist Gilles Perrault, these works were in two groups: some were copies of the works shown in Venice, and others were “pastiches”. Court papers state that the drawings were by the same hand, but not by Hébuterne; they were composed of “elements taken from Hébuterne as well as Modigliani, Brancusi, Carrà and Picasso”.

However, Mr Parisot told The Art Newspaper that “Jeanne was 15, 16 or 17 years old when she made those sketches and she started by copying the artists she knew”. He says that they are genuine and that they came from a clear-out of André Hébuterne’s studio after his death. “The [original] payment by cheque exists, it was a legal transaction,” he says. Mr Prunet denies that there were any works left in the studio.

Sending Mr Parisot to trial, the French judge Henri Pons said that “Mr Parisot wanted to give a fraudulent provenance to the drawings [in the exhibition] so that he could increase the prices for her work…he used his reputation as a Modigliani specialist [to achieve this].”

“It seems probable that Mr Parisot copied, or had copies made of, the works lent by Mr Prunet for the Venice exhibition…as well as creating fake works attributed to Hébuterne,” he added.

The case is complicated by the ferocious struggle to gain recognition as the world’s leading Modigliani specialist between Mr Parisot and Parisian art historian Marc Restellini who have previously had legal clashes.

With prices for Modigliani’s work so high—the world record is $26.8m for Reclining Nude, 1917—becoming the recognised specialist is potentially lucrative. Through his friendship with Modigliani’s daughter Jeanne Hébuterne, Christian Parisot inherited the droit moral over the artist’s work, the legal moral right to authenticate the artist’s work; he is also the author of a four-part catalogue raisonné. Mr Restellini is working on a new, Wildenstein Institute-funded catalogue raisonné.

Mr Prunet recently lent Mr Restellini drawings by Hébuterne, as well as 13 previously unknown Modigliani drawings, for a travelling show in Japan curated by Mr Restellini. No date has yet been set for the court case.

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