June - Market place and miscellany

The Market Place
Several visitors have asked me about two American miniature portraits sold at auction in the last week or so. They wondered why the price for an unsigned and unidentified miniature seemed to go so high.

I was also asked if I could at the same time please comment about attributions.

Attributions are very tricky. I tried to think of an analogy, but about the best I could come up with was a garden full of flowers and four types of visitor.

A - Some people will enter and say "What a lovely garden of flowers!".
B - Some, like me will do a little better and say "What a lovely display of roses!".
C - The next group would be able to rattle off all the common names of the various roses.
D - Then the experts will enter and recite the common name, and the botanical name, of every rose in the garden, based upon their experience and minute differences between the various roses!

However, even that analogy is an over simplification as sometimes miniature portrait scholars and experts will meet before an exhibition of portrait miniatures, to debate all the attributions and try to reach a consensus on each artist for the purpose of the exhibition.

Thus I regret to say that attribution is all about training, experience, and very much study. However, as with the next example, use of good common sense before bidding or buying can help.

Miniatures from America sold recently sold at auction do provide examples for discussion.

The first military miniature was in a nice gold case with rear insert. It sold at a live auction for a hammer price of $5250, compared to a pre-sale estimate of $1000-$1500.

This was say $6500 in total including the buyer's commission.

It was fully described by the auction house as "MINIATURE OIL ON ELEPHANT IVORY MILITARY PORTRAIT - Bust Portrait of Lieut. Samuel Wallingford, the first US Marine killed in action, on April 24, 1778, while fighting alongside Capt. John Paul Jones aboard the USS Ranger during the capture of the HMS Drake, the first victory of the US Navy, the day after Wallingford had led men ashore at Whitemarsh in an attempt to take Lord Selkirk prisoner; the Marine is depicted in Naval Uniform, prior to the issuance of 'The Greens', housed in a gold filled oval case with an ambrotype of the man who married his widow set into the back by his daughter, unsigned, 2 7/8" x 2 1/4" overall, fine condition. A very important relic of the first USMC hero."

However, although I could not pick the artist, I did believe the description was wrong and so told the auction house of my concern before the auction, as did a knowledgeable visitor of my acquaintance.

I informed the auction house I believed the hair style, uniform, and case were 30 to 40 years too late to be Lieut. Wallingford.

Common sense and a little study would show they date to around 1815 and hence cannot be Wallingford who died in 1778. I believe the ambrotype in the rear dates to around 1850 and is probably the same sitter, but later in life.

As photography was not invented until around 1840, some sixty years after Wallingford was killed, it is rather beyond belief that a man so young as the one shown in the ambrotype, born say c1800, could have married Wallingford's widow.

The only response from the auction house was that they were just repeating what the vendor said. I do not know whether any words or caution were mentioned at the auction, but I rather doubt it based upon the price realised.

Military miniature portraits do attract a large premium, but the second was only described as; "Selling is a wonderful early 19th century portrait on ivory. The miniature portrait features a young military man in uniform. Although the watercolor is not signed it is of very high quality and detail. The young man's uniform is tufted up the front near the brass buttons and has a high collar. The portrait is in a gold filled or gold plated frame which measures 2 1/2" by 2 1/8"."

Being an Internet only auction there was no estimate, but it sold for $5500. This was slightly less than the previous example.

I could immediately tell the quality, but could not pick the artist precisely, but was then told it was by Joseph Wood, and which I readily accepted after comparing it with other examples of his work.

Although there are not a lot of examples of his work, Wood was a very good artist and this, together with a military sitter, explains the auction price.

Other recent military miniatures sold include two European ones.

The first is of a much decorated officer which was signed "Felia Alassa 1815", although my reference books do not record this name.

This miniature portrait sold for a similar price to the American ones at $5100.

It is a well done and very colorful miniature. I have been informed that the sitter may be wearing Russian decorations and the Russian connection was the reason for the strong buyer interest.

Another officer was in pair with a miniature of a lady.

The pair sold for Euros 1500. Although attractive and signed indistinctly, they almost look decorative to me.

If so, this would explain the relatively lower price.

On the subject of the "Russian" connection was another miniature sold recently for GBP500 or $1000.

It was described as "This delightful portrait is painted on ivory and measures 2.5 inches or 63 mm in diameter. The gilt metal frame has no hook or other means of hanging it. The glass is slightly convex. I am not sure if the frame is original, it does not fit that well and someone has added a thin cardboard ring to hold it in position. Look just below 3 pm on the photo with the frame and you will see that the ivory is not quite circular here, but this is original. The condition of the painting is excellent as is the ivory. There is no artist's signature. There is however a pencilled name on the back which is hardly distinguishable but looks like Arch. ..... Feodorovna.

It can be compared with the original (from a catalogue photo) shown here and another example from this collection, front and reverse, shown further below.

Elsewhere, in my section on Copy, Fake, and Decorative Miniatures
I talked about official copies made of important people for presentation purposes and said.
"Miniatures like these can be found. The one shown here is expertly painted and has a faint signature of "E Miles", who was active in St Petersburg, Russia from 1797-1806 where he was Court Painter to the Tsar. The sitter is Grand Princess Alexandra Pavlovna (1783-1801), who was daughter of Tzar Paul I (1754-1801). The original painted in 1797 is in the State Russian Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow and is attributed to Miles. It looks identical to the version in this collection, apart from the style of the frame.

However, the frame here is tortoiseshell expensively inlaid with gold, mother-of-pearl, and abalone. Thus it is possible that it is an official copy made to give to a member of the Court, as the combined miniature and frame would have been very expensive. The doubt about this being by Miles, is that he did not normally sign his work and the frame style here seems to be somewhat later than the date of the original. However, it is still by a very good artist and is very similar to Miles' work. So much time and skill was required to make a copy of this standard, that it was usually not worth the effort of a faker to do so."

Thus, I hope the buyer who paid $1000 for the miniature of Grand Princess Alexandra Pavlovna realises it is a copy. Of course, the original miniature will never come on the market, but if it did I would expect to sell for well over $100,000.

Victorian and portrait jewelry
Some miniature portraits overlap with Victorian Jewelry, which is outside the scope of this collection, but anyone interested in viewing some nice Victorian jewelry should consider visiting Victorian Jewelry Musuem

Another similar museum type site which concentrates on portrait jewelry is at Much of the portrait jewelry shown there comes under the heading of what I call decorative miniatures, i.e. for decoration, rather than recording the likeness of an actual sitter, but the site does show how an interesting collection can be made of these attractive items.

A specialist site is that of American Society of Jewelry Historians which is a non-profit educational organization committed to providing an up-to-date resource for those interested in jewelry related subjects, including jewelry history, antique jewelry, and contemporary jewelry trends and design.

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