The huge problems surrounding the authentication of paintings by Amedeo Modigliani do not seem to be nearing a solution, and the issues are compounded by the number of lawsuits surrounding his work. The art market is anxiously awaiting new scholarship on the subject. The only generally accepted catalogue, by Ceroni, was last updated in 1972, and is considered to contain some errors and omissions.
The art scholar and Modigliani specialist Marc Restellini has been working for over ten years on a catalogue raisonné of the paintings. This catalogue, which is being prepared under the aegis of the Wildenstein Institute, was initially expected to be completed in 2006 although is apparently nowhere near ready, and no date is given for publication. Restellini denies rumours that work on the project has ceased. “It’s absolutely not true. A catalogue like this is an enormous amount of work and it suffices that I see a new document and I have to change everything, re-date everything,” Restellini says. He adds, darkly: “There are people who don’t want my catalogue to appear. It is going to be an atom bomb when it appears; I have added about 70 or 80 more works to the 337 in Ceroni.” The Wildenstein Institute also confirms work has not stopped on the catalogue.
The stakes are high, because prices for the artist’s work are booming. The auction record stands at $68.9m (for Nu Assis sur un Divan, 1917, at Sotheby’s New York in November 2010), and there are rumours of a recent private sale at an even higher level.
However, a number of dealers and auctioneers are already expressing doubts about the new catalogue, when it does appear, with some pointing to possible conflicts of interest. Adding to the problem is the question of other “experts”, notably Christian Parisot who owns the Modigliani “Archives Légales”, and is discredited after being convicted of forgery but still involves himself in the debate (see p38).
“I have respect for Restellini,” says James Roundell of the dealers Dickinson Roundell: “He’s working in a difficult field. There are likely to be immense legal problems with a lot of the works, and old provenance doesn’t help, because faking started very shortly after Modigliani’s death in 1920.”
Other auctioneers and dealers, who are reluctant to be named, are critical of Restellini. A senior specialist from a major auction house says: “Everyone knows Ceroni made some mistakes, and we had high hopes of the new work in preparation. Unfortunately the exhibition at the Musée du Luxembourg in 2002 [“Modigliani: the Serious Face of an Angel”] curated by Restellini, was a huge disappointment: there were no provenances given, which added to suspicions and undermined confidence.” However, Roundell says that he went to see the exhibition “with a sceptical mindset but came out thinking that [Restellini] had a good handle on the paintings, at least.”
The problem, according to another leading London dealer, is the blurring of authentication, academic and curating roles. “There has to be a watertight situation or academia and authenticating cannot co-exist. If there is any doubt about a Modigliani, there is total doubt,” he says.
The new exhibition, by Restellini at his private museum, La Pinacothèque de Paris (“Modigliani, Soutine and the Montparnasse Adventure”, until 9 September) could give rise to some disquiet. Restellini is also the curator of the exhibition, which draws on the collection of Jonas Netter, an early supporter of Modigliani, with works lent by members of his family. The Netter family is understood to be a backer of the institution. Asked to confirm this, Restellini said: “I do not have to answer that question.”
As far as the market is concerned, for the moment Ceroni remains the indispensable reference for dealers and auctioneers. According to one auction house specialist, “this is a complex problem, but today, offering for sale a Modigliani not in Ceroni is simply suicidal”.