Tuesday, July 10, 2012

A Midsummer Modigliani Mystery

About 10 years ago, my mother gave me a drawing of a female nude as a birthday present. She said she bought it for a nominal sum at a house sale in Cape Cod while shopping for antiques.

The lovely drawing was signed "Modigliani." I've always wondered whether it was an original by Amedeo Modigliani but haven't been able to get it appraised because I couldn't take a decent photograph of the faint image under glass. Because of the large number of fakes, dealers in New York City would not look at it unless I had authentication, and I could not get authentication unless I had clear images.

And so I continued to wonder, over the past 10 years, whether this thing was valuable or not.

A few weeks ago, I bought a Nikon DSLR to replace my Panasonic point and shoot camera. I was finally able to take clear pictures of the drawing and signature.

I was quite pleased with these photos and so last Friday, I sent them to a couple of auction houses and asked for an estimate.

On Saturday, spurred by a hunch, I went to the Watson Library at the Metropolitan Museum and asked for assistance in authenticating my drawing. I found, on page 301 of Volume 1, Christian Parisot, Modigliani; catalogue raisonné (1990):

Plate 37/16
Nu de femme de face (1916)
Crayon sur papier

You can imagine my excitement. The plate clearly matched my drawing.

The next day I researched recent auction prices and found that Modigliani drawings have been selling for $50,000 to $300,000 USD. You have to realize: that's a lot of money for me.

But one question nagged. How did the drawing get to Cape Cod, and into the possession someone who clearly did not know its value. Was it stolen? Was it seized by the Nazis? How could I ever find out? I didn't want to shop the drawing around only to be embroiled in an expensive legal battle such as this.

Anyway I made a mental note to return to Met on my next day off and ask the reference librarian for assistance in researching provenance, surreptitiously of course, since I did not want to draw undue attention to my secret treasure.

Yesterday, one of the dealers asked for more details and, quite pleased with myself, I sent her the catalogue info and photos.

This morning, she responded:
Thank you for sending images. Regrettably we will not be able to assist you with this piece. The stamp next to the signature is a German publisher that commissioned prints to be produced of Modigliani's drawings. The signature is usually a printed signature as these prints were published posthumously.
Mystery solved. Oh well, so it's not an original after all, but it was fun playing Sherlock Holmes. It's still an interesting antique and a priceless lesson in the economics of art.

Now, back to reality....

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