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Photographer: Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images

Good Stories Sell Art

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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The visual arts are about stories, but it often isn't the works themselves that are telling them. Events in the art world this week -- a big sale and a surprising discovery -- provide excellent illustrations.

The highlight of the fall auctions in New York was the sale at Christie's of a nude by Amedeo Modigliani for $170 million. Christie's named the overall auction "The Artist's Muse," but the woman on the canvas played no such role in the artist's life. "Nu Couche" was commissioned by Modigliani's dealer, Leopold Zborowski, as part of a series meant for sale. The dealer provided models and materials and paid Modigliani 15 to 20 francs per sitting. Pretty generous, considering that Modigliani charged 10 francs and a bottle of wine when it was the subject himself or herself who was paying. There's nothing too inspiring about the backstory of "Nu Couche."

The details of the sale are far more exciting. First, there's the price: the second highest amount in auction history, surpassed only by Pablo Picasso's "Les Femmes d'Alger." The extraordinary amount is in stark contrast to Modigliani's own assessment of his work -- and his contemporaries' lack of appreciation for it. And then there's the buyer -- Liu Yiqian, who won out over other Asian clients in fierce bidding. 

One reason for the frenzy may been that there's a lot of red in the painting. It's a lucky color in China, and works in which it dominates are bid up, regardless of the painter or style. Liu, however, isn't merely a private collector in search of an expensive conversation piece. He has built two museums in Shanghai, filling them with Chinese traditional art, including a Ming porcelain cup he bought for $36.3 million. Liu is known for paying for his purchases with an American Express card. Presumably, the former taxi driver, who made his fortune in the stock market, gets lots of free airline miles.

That is the story that is now attached to the painting, and if it ever goes up for sale again -- most of the masterpieces sold by Christie's and Sotheby's this week had been auctioned before -- it will determine the new price.

In contrast to Modigliani, the Russian artist, Kazimir Malevich -- one of his paintings sold for $60 million -- liked to provide a story to go with his works, which often were ideological statements. Consider his most famous painting, "Black Square." After finishing it 1915, Malevich told his students that he had been unable to eat or sleep for days, trying to understand what he had done. Later, he would tell people that the meaning of the square was "infinity and eternity," "the source of all things," a representation of the camera obscura, an instance of pure from free from the confines of nature-imitating realism. 

With all that mystery and symbolism, and because of the work's influence on later artists, it's difficult to imagine how much the original "Black Square" (Malevich painted several copies) could fetch at auction. This week, the "Black Square's" story took a somewhat comic turn, however. Researchers at the Tretyakov gallery in Moscow, where the original is kept, revealed that the square in the painting was pained on top of something else, which they'd been able to discover. They found two colorful suprematist compositions, but also a barely readable inscription containing the words "Battle of Negroes." The gallery's Irina Vakar, who is about to publish a book about the painting, says it could be a reference to a joke by French artist Alphonse Allais. He -- or perhaps another Frenchman, Paul Bilhaud -- had painted a black rectangle in 1882, naming it "A Night Battle of Negroes in a Cave." (Allais also had an all-white work called "The First Communion of  Young Albino Girls on a Snowy Day").

The best-known work of Malevich, the ever-serious writer of manifestos, apparently was one he'd daubed to hide colorful forms that he found unsuccessful or disappointing. All the heavy symbolism came later -- and not even the discovery by Vakar and her co-workers can now remove that veneer from "Black Square." It only adds to its mystique: Malevich wasn't know for his playfulness or sense of humor, nor is his work. If anything, the new findings make "Black Square" even more valuable.

The way stories attach themselves to artworks and expand the original meaning may help explain what makes a masterpiece. A theme of this auction season was that young living artists, who were just getting accustomed to selling their works for hundreds of thousands, even million of dollars, were no longer in great demand. While there's a big element of blind luck to what sells and what doesn't in the art market, it's possible that the new art just needs a more exciting story before it deserves sky-high prices. And it's not enough for the painters to tell the stories themselves.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net