From poverty to sex, drugs and price­less art

Modigliani’s con­tro­ver­sial art fetches record price at Christie’s Paris

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - AUCTIONS - JOHN WALSH

THE NEWS that a lime­stone sculp­ture by Amedeo Modigliani has been sold for a record price – £35.8 mil­lion (R405.8m) – at the Paris branch of Christie’s auc­tion house is test a me n t t o t h e e x p o n e n t i a l growth in the Ital­ian artist’s mar­ket value – and in the art world’s love for pic­turesque self-de­struc­tion.

Ninety years af­ter his death, crit­ics still ar­gue about the aes­thetic value of his works – espe- cially his oddly in­ter­change­able por­traits of women, with their long, Ruud-van-Nis­tel­rooy-meets-Sa­man­thaCameron faces, their in­ex­pres­sive eyes and long shapely necks. But of his eco­nomic worth, there’s lit­tle doubt.

Over the past 20 years, his stock has risen to dizzy­ing heights, with his work now re­garded along­side that of Pi­casso, Matisse, Van Gogh, Gau­guin and Klimt.

Sev­eral Modigliani por­traits have re­cently hit the auc­tion rooms, gen­er­at­ing ex­cite­ment. The ear­li­est recorded auc­tion­sale price for one of his paint­ings is 1986, when Jeanne He­buterne (au Foulard) was sold at Christie’s for £1.95m.

When last of­fered for auc­tion, in 2004, its es­ti­mate was be­tween £5.3m and £6.7m.

In May 1997, The Son of the Concierge was sold at Christie’s New York for $5.8m. In Sotheby’s in 2006, it went un­der the ham­mer for $31m.

A c c o rd i n g t o A r t p r i c e, which as­sesses the fluc­tu­a­tions of in­vest­ment val­ues in art, be­tween 2004 and 2005 alone, Modigliani’s value in­creased by be­tween 45 and 64 per­cent.

His sculp­tures, a small corner of his out­put, have be­come a gold­mine. Tête de Femme, carved in 1911-12, was sold in 1995 for $1 047 500. Six years later, in 2001, it went for $3.8m at the Phillips auc­tion house. That was then the high­est price paid for a Modigliani carv­ing.

Nine years later, the value of his stone heads has in­creased by a fac­tor of 10.

Why? What do buy­ers find so at­trac­tive about him? The short an­swers are: de­bauch­ery, di s s ol ut i on, dr ugs and s e l f - de­struc­tion. In his brief life (he died at 36, of tu­ber­cu­lar menin­gi­tis, ag­gra­vated by a diet of d r u g s, ab s i n t h e a n d ch e ap brandy), he played to per­fec­tion the role of the artist as manic vi­sion­ary, de­ranged ad­dict and skirt-chas­ing de­gen­er­ate.

Af­ter study­ing art in his birthplace, Livorno, Italy, he went to Venice, where he dis­cov­ered hashish and be­gan to fre­quent seedy hang­outs and reek­ing broth­els.

Modigliani moved to Paris in 1906 and set­tled in Mont­martre, in a com­mune for pen­ni­less artists.

Nick­named “Modi” (which help­fully sounds like “mau­dit”, French for “doomed”) he was a Pete Doherty-like star of early 20th-cen­tury Paris, when to be young was heaven, but to be a strug­gling artist was of­ten to in­habit the out­skirts of hell.

He plunged into a bot­tom­less pit of drink and drugs, al­lowed his liv­ing quar­ters to go to ruin, and took to be­hav­ing out­ra­geously in pub­lic.

Modigliani sketched like a driven man, some­times knock­ing off 100 pieces in a day, and painted scores of por­traits. – The In­de­pen­dent

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