An exhibition of work by Amedeo Modigliani in Genoa ended dramatically last month, when 21 paintings—around a third of the works in the show—were seized from the Palazzo Ducale by Italian police on suspicion they were fake.
The museum closed the show three days early—but not before a staggering 100,000 visitors had already seen it.
To most observers, the incident was shocking. But for Modigliani scholars, it was not surprising. The Italian painter and sculptor, renowned for his long-faced portraits and tragic life, is one of the world’s most frequently faked blue-chip artists. In fact, inauthentic versions of his work have been plaguing the art market for decades.
As museums around the globe, including the Tate Modern in London and the Jewish Museum in New York, prepare to open major exhibitions of Modigliani’s work this fall, scholars are busily developing new scientific analysis and research to help distinguish the real from the fake. But the road has not been easy.
Why So Many Fakes?
Experts offer several explanations for why Modigliani is so beloved by forgers. The first is financial. As one of the few artists whose work has crossed the $100 million threshold at auction (according to the artnet Price Database, his painting Nu couché (1917–18) fetched $170.4 million at Christie’s in 2015), Modigliani is worth a forger’s time and effort to imitate.
“Even if Modigliani died poor, his paintings were highly appreciated already in the 1920s, right after his death, so there’s been fakes from very early on,” says Jeanne-Bathilde Lacourt, a Modigliani expert and curator at the Lille Métropole Museum of Modern, Contemporary, and Outsider Art (LaM).
Furthermore, Modigliani’s paintings, whose spare forms are inspired by Cycladic art, “seem somehow simple to make,” Lancourt says. “Of course…they are much harder to fake than what you’d think, and many fakes are in fact incredibly obvious.”
A third issue: poor record-keeping. When Modigliani was alive, his works were rarely reproduced in catalogues or in print. And when he died at age 35, he had no gallerist committed to looking after his legacy and his daughter was just a baby.
“There was no one there to make sure that his works were documented and cataloged for quite a long time,” Lancourt notes. “Nobody did proper research of his works until after the Second World War, so that’s pretty much 30 years”—ample time for forgers to start producing fakes.
Perhaps the most pressing problem with Modigliani authentication, however, rests with scholars. Experts have developed competing, and sometimes contradictory, catalogues raisonnés (a comprehensive list of an artist’s known works). While most artists only have one catalogue raisonné, Modigliani has six. One scholar has reportedly received death threats over his plans to release yet another next year.