April - Fakes and decorative miniatures

Every week I receive emails from people enclosing images of miniatures they have purchased or been given, and asking if they are genuine. Sometimes the dealer who sold the miniatures has assured the buyer that they are 18C or by a famous artist.

Unfortunately, I usually have to tell them they are decorative items or fakes. This can mean that the new owner has paid far more than an item is worth.

However, if that unwelcome news is received by the owner, perhaps a small consolation is to know that even large museums make mistakes. For example last year, I commented on fake miniatures in the Royal Ontario Museum, see View


In recent months, in this blog I have given several examples of miniatures sold by reputable auction houses which I believe were not accurately described. They included miniatures of George Washington.

Such inaccurate descriptions are usually due to inadequate knowledge of the subject at the auction houses, who merely repeat a previous owner's claims when preparing their auction catalogue.

Thus, I thought it might be helpful to give some more examples of items offered on eBay recently which I think are fakes. You will have to draw your own conclusions as to whether the inaccurate descriptions are deliberate or innocent.

Fake 1
The first is the above miniature of George Washington claimed to be by Charles Willson Peale. PORTRAIT OFGEORGE WASHINGTON ,POSS. CHAS.WILLSON PEALE It was offered on eBay as item 300214059106 in early April with an opening price of one cent and a "Buy It Now" price of $1,450,000. The vendor had bought it three weeks earlier on eBay for GBP360. Currently it is bid to $10,300.00 but it is a fake, so anyone bidding will lose a lot of money.

It has writing on the reverse as shown and this along with a detailed description supposedly supports the seller's claim. However, in my opinion it is a poor copy of a portrait of George Washington by another artist, the signature is fake, and the style is nothing like Peale's work.

On behalf of Charles Willson Peale (who can no longer say it himself), I am embarrassed that such a poorly painted miniature should be attributed to Peale.

For comparison, here are three genuine miniatures by Charles Willson Peale (including one of George Washington) and one by James Peale (Martha Washington).

The bottom two are Martha's children by her first marriage; Martha Parke Curtis and John Parke Curtis. They are all held at Mount Vernon.

Note the different style, the oval shape of the frame, and the size (approx 40mm x 50mm).

In this case I do not believe anyone buying on eBay would be so foolish as pay the Buy It Now asking price, but it is an extreme example of what one needs to watch out for.

I next noticed the seller modified his claim a little to say "This pose of George Washington is strikingly similar to the Gilbert Stuart paintings. This has Washington's head tilted to the right instead of to the left as on a One Dollar Bill." The seller did not realise it, but he gave even more proof of a fake.

Plates for making early 19C engravings were engraved by copying the image exactly from the original portrait. However this means that the printed images were then reversed.

Thus anyone painting a fake by copying an early reversed engraving, will have the head facing the wrong way.

For bank notes, the engraved plate itself has to be done back to front, so the printed image appears the correct way round.

Since writing the above I have been contacted by the dealer who sold this identical miniature, complete with the crack, on Mar 12 for GBP360 as eBay item 220208051678 to the vendor of the above fake listing, who reframed it before listing it on eBay.

The original seller had seen the relisting as eBay item 300214059106 with a Buy It Now for$1,450,000 and was worried that he had made a terrible mistake in selling it for GBP360.

Fortunately for him, he then saw this article and is now able to sleep better, realising it is a fake.

Perhaps the vendor of the fake with the BIN has also become aware of this article, as I see on April 10, it has been withdrawn as from sale as being "no longer available."

In October 2007, I commented on these three portraits of George Washington which were also fakes or decorative copies.

The vendor tried to sell two of them at auction for opening bids of $15,000 and one for an opening bid of $60,000, but being fakes, predictably they did not sell.

For more about researching miniatures and yet another Washington fake, see my post on Walter Robertson at 2008 - Additions and Comment: The Case of Walter Robertson, Copies ...

I think the fakes were painted in the late 1800's and there are many other fake copies of Washington circulating, also of Lincoln and other US Presidents. They are the American equivalents of the numerous French decorative portraits of Napoleon and in my opinion are worth under $500.

The above and the following example are dangerous fakes, mainly because of the prices being asked. I feel they are each only worth about $150/$250 at auction, say up to 50% more than that at retail, as decorative miniatures. However, anyone wanting a portrait of Washington may pay a premium over that.

Fake 2
The second example of a fake is this miniature portrait offered with an opening price of $2800 and claimed to be by Richard Cosway. It is described as;


To try and help a visitor who had asked about a miniature where she felt she had been mislead by a seller, I wrote the following. "Many dealers do not know what they are selling, but one way to get protection is to ask for a receipt with a full written description. Then if you find they misled you, you can take it back for a refund.

Several people have contacted me about collecting miniatures. I usually say, if you would like to start serious collecting, I suggest you look for books in your library, especially by Daphne Foskett. Her books are mainly about British miniatures, but hers was the first book I had and I learned a lot from it. Also for a month or two watch miniatures on eBay and try to pick which ones are "proper" ones which will end up at a high price.

You will start to get a good idea of the range of values, but do remember that some buyers may pay well above the market value for an item if they think it is pretty.
There are many experts buying on eBay and so it is hard to find a bargain. Some dealers put ridiculous prices on decorative items and so they do not sell.

My first miniature was a decorative one and I still keep it for sentimental reasons! I have also made many mistakes (and still do!) but it is all part of the learning process and even when something I like sells for a high price, even far too much for me, I sort of feel a little rewarded that at least I had a good eye to pick it as a good one!

There is
a lot of information about miniatures on my website, so you might learn something from reading that, see Background "

I also indicated to this visitor the "Cosway" miniature shown, as an example of a fake that she should avoid. I hope the visitor does not mind me quoting her reply.

She commented; "It looks genuine to me! How can you tell it isn't real? From the signature, from the fact that the history or artist's style of painting isn't what it should be or because the frame isn't costly or doesn't date with the painting? It's a minefield for someone like me!"

And I replied, inter alia; "For all the reasons you mention!"

Thus it is an example of a fake miniature portrait offered for sale by a vendor who may have innocently accepted the previous owner's description and provenance without question.

Update - This "Cosway" miniature did not sell, but was been relisted at the same price, so buyers still need to take care. New - It still did not sell, so hopefully will not reappear again.

Fake 3
On a similar subject, Nadeau's Auction Gallery is offering this miniature portrait which they also claim is by Richard Cosway.

It is lot 2156 at their sale on 12 April and is described as "Richard Cosway (1742-1821) "Signed miniature portrait of Marchioness of Queenston, wearing a white dress with a" "ruffle collar, blue sash and white and blue bandeau, inscribed on verso, 3 1/2in x 3in. Provenance: The Estate of Dr. and Mrs. Charles Solomon of Norwich, Connecticut".

The required opening bid is $4000, with an estimate of $8000/$12000. Nadeau's appear to be relying on the previous owner's provenance. However, I suggest potential buyers be very wary of it and seek a guarantee from Nadeau's before bidding, as it looks like a Continental copy to me.

Update - Someone must have subsequently made the same criticism of this miniature to Nadeau's as I see the opening bid was reduced from $4000 to $500 and it then sold for $1500. Still a solid price for a decorative miniature, but it is well painted.

Fake 4
Goantiques has offered this fake pair of miniatures on eBay on several occasions on behalf of a seller in Canada.

They are described; "We are pleased to offer a pair of exquisite works of art. These are a pair of what believe to be 18th century portrait miniatures. They portray the King and Queen after the "Glorious Revolution"of 1688 when the Catholic James II was defeated and went into exile. William, Prince of Orange, was invited to become King and his wife, Mary Stuart, daughter of James II became Queen. These portraits have not been taken apart and I would hesitate to do so. The quality of the painting is marvellous. We have another portrait very similar to these signed Wyck, so we would suggest that the artist is most likely Wyck who lived in the late 17th and early 18th century. Year:c. 1690-1700"

There is an unknown reserve, but it is presumably close to the Goantiques estimate of $4000-$5250. However, the seller is dishonest, as they are fakes from around 1900-1920, probably painted on an ivory substitute, and of very poor quality. They may even have been printed and have hand-painted highlights.

As mentioned elsewhere, the ornate frame is intended to distract a buyer away from the poor quality of the miniature. In my opinion, they are only worth $100 each on a good day and I would rather choose something from the following selection of decorative miniatures.

Decorative Miniatures
I know many people enjoy and collect decorative miniatures which may, or may not have, fake signatures because they just like the images depicted.

I do not have any argument with this, provided they are not being mislead over the artist or the value. The main thing is to like an image, and if you like to have decorative miniatures to look at, that is great.

In this Artists and Ancestors collection a very limited number of the miniatures shown are in fact decorative items, which appealed at the time due to the sitters being interesting.

As long as collectors do not pay too much due to unscrupulous sellers making false claims, decorative miniatures are fine.

Shown below is a random selection of decorative miniatures being offered on eBay. I have not checked the descriptions to see if any of them are misleading, but they give an indication of what many decorative miniatures look like.

In 99% of cases, decorative miniatures are copied from engravings of 18C and earlier portraits. They are often attractive and have fancy frames designed to distract one away from the poor quality of the painting on the miniature. After a short time, you will find you recognise many of the images from previous items offered for sale. In this selection there are two of Lady Hamilton.

A good place to see a range of original 18C portraits, some of which have have been copied over the years, as the basis for decorative miniature portraits, is the website of Claudia Solacini who has a section dedicated to the 18C works of The art of Adelaide Labille-Guiard

Decorative miniatures are a good and affordable way of forming a collection as a basis for learning about the people and the times of the 18C, apart from furnishing your home. Thus, I do hope that you can buy them at a good price and enjoy looking at them.

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