The buzz around the Paris Biennale, from September 13 to 17, will lure many to the city this autumn, but Artcurial’s auction of the Joseph Altounian collection on September 17 and 18 will be an incentive for art collectors to extend their stay. The eclectic trove of modern and ancient art, with more than 400 pieces, includes six important drawings by Amedeo Modigliani, whose portraits captured the face of early-20th-century Paris. One of the portraits for sale is of Joseph Altounian himself.
“This collection is a rare and precious testimony to the ties between this family of antiquarians and the leading artists of the 20th century, such as Auguste Rodin, Max Jacob, Pablo Picasso and Amedeo Modigliani,” says Stéphane Aubert, auctioneer and associate director of Artcurial. “The unique collection was owned by a family that has supplied the greatest American museums, and collectors the world over.”
As Aubert indicates, Joseph Altounian was a major figure in the art world. Born in Armenia in 1890, he spent most of his life in France: first in Paris, where he established friendships with masters such as Picasso, Guillaume Apollinaire and, of course, Modigliani himself; then in Mâcon following his marriage to Henriette Lorbet, who came from a family of Burgundian antiques dealers and collectors. There, they built up a considerable collection. Their son-in-law Bernard Rousset continued the family business well into the 1960s.
Such was the breadth of Altounian’s interests that there is something to entice all at this auction. The six Modiglianis, including the Altounian portrait drawn in 1917 (estimate €50,000-€70,000), are certainly a highlight. Every one of the drawings is dedicated by the artist to his friend and was listed in the antiquarian’s goods register. The aforementioned portrait is backed by the written testimony of Max Jacob, another friend. It reads: “I certify that this is the portrait done of Altounian by Modigliani in 1917.” Also crossing the block is a work in the expressionist “elongated proportions” with which Modigliani became associated. Tête, circa 1911-1912, is a pencil on paper (estimate €250,000-€350,000), with the inscription: “Max J/ to our friend/ Marc Brésil/ Modigliani.” L’Estatico, from 1916, is estimated at €60,000-€80,000, and there is a watercolour and blue pencil-on-paper work titled Jeune Homme Assis au Chapeau, created in 1916 and signed “To my friend Altounian, Modigliani”. It is estimated at €100,000-€150,000.
The extensive collection reveals many treasures. Altounian’s first love was antiquities and the sale features a collection of Egyptian statues, as well as work dating from the Middle Ages. These include a wooden statuette of an Egyptian dignitary (Meir Necropolis, Middle Kingdom, 11th to 12th Dynasty, €50,000-€60,000) and a statue of an Egyptian scribe in limestone (Saite period, early 26th Dynasty, €6,000-€8,000). Elsewhere, there is a limestone torso of a prophet derived from Cluny Abbey, Burgundy, dating from about 1115-1130 (€60,000-€80,000), a French 14th-century limestone bas-relief depicting two busts of evangelists in medallions (€3,000-€5,000) and a 14th-century wooden Virgin with child sculpture from northern France, with an estimate of €10,000-€12,000.