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Modigliani sells for NIS 31.5 million

Portrait de Anne Bjarne becomes the most expensive painting ever sold in Israel, kind-of

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

'Portrait de Anne Bjarne' by Amadeo Modigliani (photo credit: Wikipaintings/ public domain)
'Portrait de Anne Bjarne' by Amadeo Modigliani (photo credit: Wikipaintings/ public domain)

A painting by Italian Jewish artist Amedeo Modigliani, projected to be sold for NIS 30 million (some $8.25 million), fetched NIS 31.5 million ($8.6 million) at an auction in Jerusalem on Tuesday.

Portrait de Anne Bjarne (1919, oil on canvas, 65×100 cm) was auctioned at a show by Matsart Auctioneers and Appraisers.

The bidding opened at $5.5 million, with a Russian, Italian, and French collectors vying against each other. The French collector ultimately won out.

The painting sold for $7 million at the show, and the buyer paid an additional fee to the auction house, making the work easily the most expensive ever sold in Israel. 

The previous record-holder was a Camille Pissarro that sold in Israel for $1.2 million. A painting by French Jewish painter Chaim Soutine, a close third, fetched $1 million.

“Beyond the historical significance, there is a purely economic aspect to this sale,” reflected Shmuel Bahagon, strategic adviser for Matsart in New York and Jerusalem. “These days, when many individuals are unsure of what to do with their money, and don’t want to invest it in banks, this sale shows that art is an unparalleled channel of investment, especially over the past five years.”

The painting itself was not actually in Israel. In order to avoid the 18% value added tax that would have been levied had the work been brought into the country, Matsart kept the painting in New York. Bidders at the King David Hotel relied on photographs. Other works in the sale, however, were on display.

The Modigliani belonged to the private collection of Israeli businessman Meshulam Riklis. Some of the proceeds of the sale will go to the Israel Dignity Fund, headed by Riklis’s wife Tali, for helping wounded IDF soldiers recover through art therapy.

Bidding at the Matsart art auction in Jerusalem, July 2 (photo credit: Sarah Brodsky)
Bidding at the Matsart art auction in Jerusalem, July 2 (photo credit: Sarah Brodsky)

The show featured works by a number of other prominent Jewish and Israeli artists, including Marc Chagall, Emmanuel Mane-Katz, Reuven Reuben, and Theo Tobiasse. Works by Pablo Picasso and Andy Warhol were also up for auction.

Matsart CEO Uri Rosenbach said that the Israeli community was ready for an auction such as this, but lamented the barriers that hold Israel back. ”In Europe, for example, most countries have a reduced VAT rate on paintings to encourage the market,” he said. Israel does not. “A difference of, say, 11% on $1,000,000 is a lot of money.”

Modigliani, who died in 1920 at the age of 35, grew up in Italy. His mother descended from Dutch Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza. After studying in Italy, the sickly Modigliani moved to Paris, where he soon developed a reputation as a drunkard and drug-using Bohemian. He may have used his well-known substance abuse to hide the tuberculosis to which he ultimately succumbed.

Simultaneous shows were also held in Paris and New York, and collectors at all three locations were able to bid against one another.

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