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Italian masterpiece found in dustbin may yet be a fake, experts warn

Market dealer's discovery still needs authentication.
Restorer Luana Casaglia conducts tests on June 9, 2016 at the COOBEC laboratories in Spoleto on a painting purportedly by 20th century master Modigliani. Photo courtesy of COOBEC via AP
Restorer Luana Casaglia conducts tests on June 9, 2016 at the COOBEC laboratories in Spoleto on a painting purportedly by 20th century master Modigliani. Photo courtesy of COOBEC via AP

ROME // A flea market dealer finds a painting near a rubbish bin in a Rome underground station and it turns out to be a modern masterpiece by Modigliani. Too good to be true? Absolutely not, says the Amedeo Modigliani Institute.” I assure you, this isn’t a fake,” insists the institute’s president, Luciano Renzi. “We are dealing with a discovery.”

Modigliani scholar Kenneth Wayne begs to differ. “If a work just appears in 1990 or 2016 without any history whatsoever, no exhibitions, no programmes, that’s a major cause of concern. It’s a red flag.”

Add the fact that the finder has not come forward publicly and that the Amedeo Modigliani Institute has been tarnished by a scandal involving a past president who was accused of knowingly authenticating fakes, and that Modigliani is one of the most forged artists around and there would seem to be ample need for caution.

Nevertheless, the institute — which doubles as a public relations firm and is in sore need of good publicity following the forgery scandal — is putting the painting on show next week at an arts festival in Spoleto.

The painting, a signed portrait of Odette, was apparently found in June 2006 by a flea market dealer who spotted it propped up against a rubbish bin at the la Rustica metro stop on the outskirts of Rome. Rats had gnawed some holes in it. This information comes courtesy of Gennaro Arbia, a lawyer representing the market trader. He sent a photograph of the painting to the Paris office of Christian Parisot, co-founder of the Amedeo Modigliani Institute, hoping to get it certified as genuine. Parisot had founded the institute with Renzi after Modigliani’s only daughter bequeathed him the artist’s documentary archive.

In response to Arbia’s inquiry, Parisot’s office said there were no elements to suggesting the painting was authentic and declined to analyse it further.

However, Parisot’s reputation was damaged by his 2012 arrest on charges of knowingly authenticating forgeries. The flea market trader persisted and ten years later after the discovery lab analyses were sent to the Modigliani Insititute in Rome and another lab in Spoleto for more detailed analysis. The results purportedly show the painting dates back to the first two decades of the 20th century, when Modigliani was alive and show no trace of titanium white, a pigment invented in 1924 and a sure-fire sign of forgery as the artist died in 1920.

The wood frame, canvas, colours and surface dirt are also consistent with his era, according to academic Alberto D’Atanasio, of the art academy in Brescia. “We don’t know anything about this painting, nevertheless nothing, nothing makes me think it is fake,” he said. Mr D’Atanasio is not a Modigliani expert, however.

Amedeo Modigliani died in 1920 in Paris at the age of 35 of tubercular meningitis after a short but intense career that produced 337 known nudes and sculptures, many featuring the distinctive lithe necks of his muses. The timing of “Odette’s” appearance is certainly suspect:

In November, Modigliani’s Nu Couche (Reclining Nude) fetched $170 million (Dh624m) at a Christie’s auction in New York, the second highest price ever paid for an artwork at auction. Modigliani is about to become the artist of the moment with a host of exhibitions planned in museums around the world in the run-up to 2020, the centenary of his death. Odette lacks provenance. The art world abounds with Modigliani fakes, most famously the 1984 “discovery of three sculpted heads There is no paper trail of past owners or other documentation and the art world abounds with Modigliani fakes, most famously the 1984 “discovery” by three men of three sculpted heads which Modigliani had supposedly tossed into the canal in Livorno, his hometown. In fact, the threesome had carved the heads themselves using power drills.

Even the lab used by the Modigliani Institute refuses to comment on Odette’s authenticity. Luana Casagia, a restorer at the Cooperative Beni Culturali in Spoleto said, “The paint suggests an ageing — years have passed — but to bring it back to 100 years, we can’t do anything like that.” Kenneth Wayne, who is head of the Modigkiani Project in New York but has not viewed the painting, says the absence of titanium oxide is not a fail-safe test. Instead, a forger could simply have used old paint.

Mr Arbia admits the flea market trader wants to sell the painting but finding a buyer willing to part with big money for an artwork with no provenance will not be easy. And if Odette turns out to be yet another forgery? He pauses before answering. “The dream is over.”

* Associated Press

Updated: June 18, 2016 04:00 AM



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