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Modigliani’s Note Makes An Impression

October 26, 2023
A page from the notebook of Amadeo Modigliani with a few lines written on it

The page from Modigliani’s notebook

The Italian artist Amedeo Modigliani is always popular at auction. Normally it’s his paintings that fetch large sums, but a recent Sotheby’s sale saw bidders fighting over a scrap of paper.

Modigliani was born in Livorno, Italy, on July 12, 1884, and passed away in Paris on January 24, 1920. He is renowned for his unique and iconic portraits characterized by elongated features, almond-shaped eyes, and a sense of melancholy. His work is associated with the modernist and figurative art movements of the early 20th century. In his early twenties, Modigliani moved to Paris, where he became a part of the vibrant artistic community in Montmartre and Montparnasse. His artistic style was influenced by various sources, including African and Oceanic art, as well as the works of artists such as Paul Cézanne and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.

The scrap of paper people seemed determined to acquire was a note he wrote in his sketchbook when he was just 23; it provides insight into his creative intentions. In this note, he stated, “Ce que je cherche ce n’est pas le réel par l’ireel non plus, mais l’Inconscient le mystère de l’Instinctivité de la Race,” which translates to, “What I am searching for is not the real nor the unreal, but the unconscious, the mystery of the instinctiveness of the race.” In other words, Modigliani wasn’t interested in painting what you could find in your neighbor’s garden or your local grocery store. No, he had his sights set on the profound mysteries of the human experience.

Modigliani’s note was auctioned at Sotheby’s Paris on October 23rd as part of an Impressionist and Modern Art sale. It came from the same collection as some of the other lots, including 21 Modigliani sketches. Although all the sketches found buyers, they were still far from the price achieved for the note. Initially estimated to be worth a modest 300 to 500, it ultimately sold for an astounding 120,000 (or 152,400 with fees), attracting the attention of collectors willing to pay a substantial sum for this small piece of art history.