Sex and drugs and priceless art

Born into poverty, Amedeo Modigliani died a disease-riddled alcoholic at just 35. In between, he created works of such beauty he's now the hottest name in the auction house
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The news that a limestone sculpture by Amedeo Modigliani has been sold for a record price – £35.8m – in the Paris branch of Christie's auction house is testament to the exponential growth in the Italian artist's market value – and in the art world's love for picturesque self-destruction. Ninety years after his death, critics still argue about the aesthetic value of his works – especially his oddly interchangeable portraits of women, with their long, Ruud-van-Nistelrooy-meets-Samantha-Cameron faces, their inexpressive eyes and long shapely necks. But of his economic worth, there's little doubt.

Over the last 20 years his stock has risen to dizzying heights, with his work now regarded alongside that of Picasso, Matisse, Van Gogh, Gauguin and Klimt. Several Modigliani portraits have recently hit the auction rooms, generating excitement. The earliest recorded auction-sale price for one of his paintings is 1986, when Jeanne Hébuterne (au Foulard) was sold at Christie's for $2.9m (£1.95m). When last offered for auction, in 2004, its estimate was between $8m and $10m. In May 1997, The Son of the Concierge was sold, again at Christie's New York, for $5.8m. In Sotheby's in 2006, it went under the hammer for $31m. According to Artprice, which assesses the fluctuations of investment values in art, between 2004 and 2005 alone, Modigliani's value increased by between 45 and 64 per cent. And his sculptures, a small corner of his output, have become a goldmine. Tête de Femme, carved in 1911-12, was sold in 1995 for $1,047,500. Six years later, in 2001, it went for $3.8m at the Phillips auction house. That was then the highest price paid for a Modigliani carving. Nine years later, the value of his stone heads has increased by a factor of 10.

Why? What do buyers find so attractive about him? The short answers are: debauchery, dissolution, drugs and self-destruction. In his brief life (he died at 36, of tubercular meningitis, aggravated by a diet of drugs, absinthe and cheap brandy), he played to perfection the role of the artist as manic visionary, deranged addict and skirt-chasing degenerate. Nicknamed "Modi" (which helpfully sounds like "maudit" French for "doomed") he was a Pete Doherty-like rock star of early 20th-century Paris, when to be young was very heaven, but to be a struggling artist was often to inhabit the outskirts of hell.

He didn't have an auspicious start in life. He was born in Livorno, Italy, to a wretchedly poor immigrant Jewish family. The bailiffs invaded the family home just as his mother, Eugenie, gave birth to him; they left empty-handed because an ancient law forbade creditors from claiming the bed of a pregnant woman. A sickly child, young Amedeo suffered from pleurisy, typhoid fever and TB. To help him recover, his mother took him on a tour of southern Italy and encouraged his passion for drawing and painting, enrolling him in the best art school in Livorno. There he studied under Guglielmo Micheli, and worked enthusiastically at portraiture, still-life and nudes (especially the nudes). In Venice, he discovered hashish and began to frequent seedy hangouts and reeking brothels, as though auditioning for a part in La Bohème. He read Nietzsche and Baudelaire, became a fan of Symbolist poetry and learned by heart the corruption- and sadism-drenched Les Chants de Maldoror by the unsavoury Comte de Lautréamont. Short (five feet five) but broodingly handsome and almost theatrically passionate, he did not lack female admirers.

Modigliani moved to Paris in 1906 and settled in Montmartre, in a commune for penniless artists. For a while he wrote home to his mother and preserved the look of a dapper provincial (meeting Picasso, who was habitually clad in working men's overalls, Amedeo remarked to a friend that being a genius did not excuse uncouth dress) but that soon changed. He plunged into a bottomless pit of drink and drugs, allowed his living quarters to go to ruin, and took to behaving badly in public. When drunk, at Vassileva's Bar, he liked to drop his trousers, lift up his shirt and shout, "Don't I look like a god?"

His love affairs shocked the public. He had a tempestuous time with Beatrice Hastings, the South African writer and one-time lover of Katherine Mansfield; they often came to blows, and once he actually threw her out of a window. He met his last muse, Jeanne Hébuterne, in 1917, when she was 19 and he 31. They became notorious figures around Montmartre. "He was dragging her along by an arm," reported Andre Salmon of one encounter, "gripping her frail wrist, tugging at one or another of her long braids of hair, and only letting go of her for a moment to send her crashing against the railings of the Luxembourg. He was like a madman, crazy with savage hatred."

His amatory derangement was matched by a furious work-rate. He sketched like a driven man, sometimes knocking off 100 pieces in a day, and painted scores of portraits, of women, friends and fellow artists including Picasso, Soutine and Diego Rivera. As a blessed relief from his two-dimensional labours, he took up sculpture for two years, from 1912-14, encouraged by the art dealer, Paul Guillaume, and the sculptor Constantin Brancusi. But he returned to painting in the war years. In December 1917, he was given his first – and, as it transpired, his only – one-man exhibition at the Berthe Weill gallery in Paris. Unluckily, it came to the attention of the city's chief of police, who closed the exhibition down after only a few hours. Asked for an explanation of what could be wrong with the beautiful nudes, he said, laconically, "They have hair."

His later life was tragic to a Van Gogh-like degree. The paintings that now fetch £30m apiece were given to strangers in exchange for meals in restaurants, or sold for pitiful sums that vanished in absinthe or opium. On a holiday to Nice, he was reduced to selling his work to tourists for a few francs. Excessive drinking led to blackouts. His health deteriorated quickly. He died in January 1920, penniless and destitute.

Jeanne Hébuterne, nine months pregnant, was distraught. Two days after the death, she threw herself out of a fifth-floor window at her parents' house, killing herself and her unborn child. The doomed couple are buried together at Père Lachaise cemetery, under a single tombstone. His epitaph says: "Struck down by Death at the moment of glory," while Jeanne's reads, pathetically, "Devoted companion to the extreme sacrifice."

Today, his reputation has never been higher. Art dealers worldwide would kill to get their hands on his simplest drawings. Some art fans cannot wait around for his works to become available. Last month, on 21 May, Modigliani's Woman With Fan was stolen from the Museum of Modern Art in Paris, along with works by Picasso, Matisse, Braque and Léger. Some art critics admired the thieves' excellent taste and remarked that, if you were thinking of starting a modern art museum, you might start with those five.

So Modigliani has taken his place among the gods of 20th-century art. One can only speculate what masterpieces might have emerged had he lived beyond 36. But then, as Baudelaire pointed out: "He who looks to a poison in order to think will soon be unable to think without it."

Record-breaking art: The sales of the century

* Jackson Pollock's Painting No. 5, (1948) was sold for $140m (£94.3m) by Hollywood entertainment magnate David Geffen in 2006, a record for a painting.

* Geffen also sold the second most expensive painting at auction, offloading Willem de Kooning's Woman III for $137.5m in 2006.

* Francis Bacon's 1976 painting Triptych, 1976 sold for $86m in 2008, making it the most expensive contemporary work sold at auction.

* A portrait of Modigliani's wife and muse Jeanne Hébuterne sold for $31.3m at a New York auction held by Sotheby's in Novemeber 2004 – a record for the artist at that time.

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