by Daniel J. Voelker, forensic historian and art lawyer
While fraud and forgery in the art world are not new phenomena, the works of Modigliani may be setting a new bar for a confluence of value-enhancing factors, including scarcity and an inventory of outed fakes that have driven prices to record highs. The caveat on the frenetic market for authentic Modigliani art is the challenge of finding one in the first place. Because the artist’s work is infamous for numerous cases of forgery within the highest circles of the art world, coupled with poor documentation, there were previously believed to be only 337 authentic Modigliani works in existence (Esterow, 2017). But this is about to change. Several parties have been quietly working on new catalogues and new validating technologies to shake up the global Modigliani collecting market, which may result in a king’s ransom of works being authenticated and brought to market.
The realization that so many extant fakes reside on the walls of collectors, accompanied by equally worthless certificates of provenance, has led to the drive for new, validated catalogues of work. For those who can prove provenance the payoff is on par with any other scarce collectible. Paintings purchased prior to 1950 for less than $5,000 are now insured and estimated to be worth $20,000,000 or more. In just the past five years, Modigliani’s 1917 painting “Nu Couche,” sold at auction for 170.4 million dollars (CNBC, 2018).
Countless stories of false authenticity hang like a black cloud over the Modigliani market, creating enough uncertainty and skepticism to make the sale of any work a challenge. The paucity of agreed-upon catalogues creates a double-edged conundrum: the seller can’t guarantee authenticity and the buyer can’t validate a purchase. Modigliani imposters are so pervasive that it’s become something of a joke in the industry. “Modigliani was producing more dead than when he was alive,” remarked Carlo Pepi, a well-known Italian art collector (Cohen, 2014).
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