By Guy Jennings, Managing Director
The case of the Modigliani catalogues raisonnés and the status of expertise on the work of Amedeo Modigliani is one of the most intractable problems facing the world of artistic scholarship and, perhaps more pertinently, considering the enormous sums of money involved, the international art market. In the last five years, two Modigliani paintings have each sold at auction for in excess of $150,000,000.
A catalogue raisonné, as the name suggests, is a serious, reasoned attempt to collate the entirety of a painter’s work. It is an attempt to establish for posterity an all-embracing catalogue of the corpus of a painter’s oeuvre. Authors of such catalogues can be relatives (often children) of painters, dealers who handled the artists’ work throughout their lifetimes or academics and scholars. Sometimes compilers of catalogues raisonnés work as individuals and increasingly frequently they work in teams or committees. Whilst important to the history of art and academic study, a credible, well-reasoned, comprehensive catalogue raisonné is vital to the ordered and transparent working of the art market. Catalogues raisonnés survive, or fall into desuetude, as a result of the confidence placed in them by those who read and refer to them; in art market terms, the major dealers, collectors and auction houses. Some catalogues raisonnés enjoy much higher reputations than others depending on the author and the confidence that his or her work has inspired.
To date there have been five catalogues raisonnés published for Amedeo Modigliani. A sixth (to which I will come later) has been ‘about to be published’ since the early 2000’s. Of the five already published Arthur Pfannstiel’s Modigliani et son Oeuvre (Paris 1956) uncritically absorbed too many works that simply did not bear close scrutiny and no longer commands confidence. Joseph Lanthemann’s Modigliani (Barcelona 1970) also contains too many questionable works. In essence the ‘raisonné’ is missing from these catalogues.
More recently (in the 1990’s) Osvaldo Patani and Christian Parisot have published catalogues which have also failed to win the necessary confidence. Parisot has been involved in a number of high-profile court cases concerning the authenticity of works alleged by him to be by Modigliani and Patani’s catalogue suffers from the same lack of discipline evident in the work of Lanthemann and Pfannstiel.
The only catalogue that commands the confidence of both the art market and scholars worldwide is that of Ambrogio Ceroni, published in various editions between 1958 and 1970. Ceroni was meticulous about including only works that he had seen and so whilst considered entirely reliable it is not considered, nor indeed is it, complete. There is a group of paintings (possibly as many as thirty or forty works) which are widely considered genuine but which were not included by Ceroni. For the most part these works are in the Americas and left Europe in the 1920’s and 1930’s before Ceroni had an opportunity to see them. In spite of this and because of the ordered and systematic manner of his working Ceroni has long been considered the ‘Bible’; any work not recorded in Ceroni is highly unlikely to be accepted for sale by the major dealers, collectors and auction houses.
This is clearly a far from satisfactory situation and since the late 1990’s attempts have been made to find a resolution. In 1997 Marc Restellini, a Parisian scholar and art historian, was engaged by the Wildenstein Foundation (publishers of many reputable catalogues raisonnés including Monet, Manet, Gauguin et al) to produce a revised new catalogue and anticipated publishing in the early 2000’s. This catalogue has yet to be published and despite many deadlines being announced, seems no closer to appearing than in 2004. Restellini has much unpublished archive material (notably the papers of Paul Guillaume, Modigliani’s first dealer) at his disposal and adopts a rigorous scientific analysis of pigment and canvas. He anticipates adding some seventy to eighty works to the corpus. When, and only when, Restellini publishes will judgement be made on his catalogue. Then, and only then, will it be seen if his work bears close scrutiny and enjoys the confidence of the market, scholars and art historians.
The signs are not promising. Restellini is not collegiate in his approach, limiting access to his archives and guarding close his methodology. Regarding the delay, he continues to cite continued research and heavy-handed threats and bribes from owners and collectors keen to have their works included in the catalogue. In 2002 he organised an exhibition at the Musée du Luxembourg in Paris in which he included some thirty works which were not recorded in Ceroni. Many in the art world were not entirely confident of all these works and since Restellini has yet to publish his catalogue raisonné, the art world is still unclear regarding his justification for their inclusion.
Until Restellini publishes the situation will remain as it is, with Ceroni, and only Ceroni, being considered as a solid basis for commercial transactions and scholarly certainty. Kenneth Wayne, an American museum curator and scholar has in recent years striven valiantly to bring some order to the situation establishing the ‘Modigliani Project’. Wayne is a serious and respected scholar with an impressive background in the museum world and, unlike Restellini, collegiate in his approach. Working with French museum curators, using scientific methodology regarding pigment and thread count, he has, with his project, set up a broad-based attempt to bring some long term stable, reliable and comprehensive expertise to producing a thoroughly reached body of work in which both the art market and academic scholars can have confidence. It may be too much to hope that his committee might work with the notoriously individualistic Restellini to produce a definitive and comprehensive catalogue raisonné for Amedeo Modigliani that would resolve a perilously fluid situation and give confidence to the international art market for many generations ahead.
Images from author’s own copy of Ceroni’s catalogue raisonné