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Pushkin accused of displaying a fake

Growing concerns over authenticity of Modigliani portrait on show in Moscow museum

Concerns are growing that a Modigliani painting on show in the “Paris School: 1905-32” exhibition (until 20 November) at the State Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow is a fake. Portrait of Marevna is described as a 1919 portrait by Modigliani of Marie Vorobieff-Stebelska, the Russian-born cubist painter known as Marevna who moved in Modigliani’s circle in Paris. The show is curated by Andrei Tolstoy, the deputy director of the museum, and the work is on loan from a private collection.

The allegations come from a leading Russian collector, who does not wish to be named, as well as other figures in the Russian art world. The collector told The Art Newspaper that he had considered buying the picture in 2006 for $3m, but after scientific testing at the Swiss Institute for Art Research, he decided against the purchase. “After 40 days, I got the evaluation back from the institute, which indicated that some of the pigments used in this painting were synthetic, produced after 1940,” he says. Modigliani died in 1920. The collector now says he is “revolted” to see the work hanging in the Pushkin as a genuine Modigliani.

Natalia Kournikova, whose gallery Nashi Khudozhniki (Our Artists) is known for promoting émigré artists, and organised a major exhibition of Marevna’s work at Moscow’s State Tretyakov Gallery in 2003, is also doubtful. “It doesn’t look like Marevna at all,” she says of the portrait. “This didn’t happen with Modigliani. You could always find traits of a resemblance in a portrait. Here they are entirely absent. Also, in her memoirs, Marevna doesn’t mention anywhere that Modigliani painted her portrait.”

Christian Parisot, the president of the Modigliani Institute in Rome who has the legal right to authenticate Modigliani’s work, insists that it is a genuine portrait. He denies all of the allegations questioning the authenticity of Portrait of Marevna and offers various documents, including a declaration by Marevna saying that she posed for Modigliani, and cites the results of scientific tests as proof.

“Current chemical and spectrographic tests demonstrate that the support, the canvas and all the colours used in this painting are of the period of the artist, and are comparable to those of the other paintings,” he says. He adds that there is no scientific research from any laboratory claiming otherwise.

The painting is listed in Parisot’s catalogue raisonné of Modigliani (Catalogue Raisonné A. Modigliani, Volume II, 1991) and has been exhibited elsewhere. It was shown at an extensive Modigliani exhibition “Amedeo Modigliani”, that opened in 2010 and ran until February this year at the Municipal House in Prague. The Modigliani Institute also points out that the painting was attributed to the artist when it was shown in 1983 at the Musée Bourdelle in Paris, when Marevna was still alive.

Parisot also says that the late Ambrogio Ceroni, one of the most respected scholars of Modigliani, believed the work to be genuine. Parisot says he has a declaration by the scholar’s widow Angela Bernardelli Ceroni, dated 19 June 1980, stating that Ceroni, who died in 1970, had authenticated the portrait.

Irina Antonova, the director of the Pushkin museum, says that she is aware of the allegations concerning the portrait but that such discussions are useful because they can help reveal new information about works when their provenance is in doubt. Antonova says that she thinks the painting is genuine: “It doesn’t raise any questions for me.” She said the “School of Paris” exhibition has played an important role in showing a Russian audience that painters of Russian origin were deeply involved in the artistic ferment of Montparnasse in the early 20th century.

Works by Modigliani are rare in Russia, but interest in his work is growing. The dispute is compounded by the fact that this work is believed to be on the market, priced at €9m.

The Pushkin museum has only two Modigliani drawings and no paintings in its collection, says Antonova. A source close to the Russian Ministry of Culture says that he thinks that in the end a sponsor will purchase Portrait of Marevna and donate it to the Pushkin museum.