Wednesday, September 19, 2007

September 2007 - American miniatures and auction prices

Two American miniatures of children, purchased at auction this month by other miniature collectors, have possibly each created auction records.

One is conceivably the highest price for a miniature by John Wood Dodge (1807-1893) at nearly $25,000 and the other, perhaps the highest price for a miniature by Laura Coombs Hills (1859-1952) at nearly $50,000. In both cases buyer's commission is included. As from the exhibition record below, it seems the actual date of the Hills miniature is around 1930, it is possibly also a world record for a 20C miniature from any country.

A brief Internet search has established that another miniature painted by Laura Coombs Hills in 1897, sold for $37,000 in 2001 see Antiques and the Arts Online - Kaminski Reports Marblehead Vase ... and at that time was reported as a record. Thus these new prices although high, are not entirely unexpected.

In contrast, a miniature of a boy in 18C costume has been acquired for a modest sum. It is by an unknown American artist and hence the low auction price.

Even so, it is interesting to compare the third miniature with the Dodge and the Hills miniatures. All three miniatures were offered for auction during late August and early September 2007.

The John Wood Dodge by Case Antiques of Knoxville, TN on September 15. It is the boy with a cap and tassel. It was offered with an opening price of $1500 and an estimate of $3000-$4000

The Laura Coombs Hills by Skinners in Boston, MA on September 7, together with three other lots containing miniatures by the same artist. It is a young girl, Helen Harlow, with a mirror. It was offered with an opening price of $2000 and an estimate of $4000-$6000.

The third was offered on August 29 by James D Julia of Rockland, ME. It is a boy in 18C costume and was offered with an opening price of $200 and an estimate of $400-$600. It was not attributed.

As can be seen, the Dodge is somewhat different in style, but it is possible to make a closer comparison of the other two, the girl with a mirror and the boy in 18C costume.

Although one is oval and the other rectangular, both paintings are of similar dimensions. From a quick look, one could well assume they are by the same artist. Both children are ornately dressed and in full length poses. Whilst not rare, full length poses are uncommon in miniatures.

The girl has a much more elaborate background and is standing by an 18C style of chair. Her clothes are almost 18C, although her hairstyle gives her away as 20C. She has an expression saying "Am I not beautiful?"

The boy has a less glamorous setting as traditionally befits a male. He is standing by a table covered by very elaborate silk material, which is intended to appear as 18C. His clothes are from the late 18C, although stylistically it is obviously not a 18C miniature. He has an expression asking "Why do I have to wear this silly get-up?"

By chance, the start price and estimated auction price range for the girl with the mirror, were exactly ten times the figures for the boy in 18C costume. As mentioned above, the boy was unattributed and this must be part of the reason for the difference. Thus, it is relevant to consider whether an opinion can be reached as to the artist.

Initially, I felt the most likely artist seemed to be Thomas Story Officer (1810-1859), but a kind visitor has subsequently advised they believe the miniature is too late for Officer and is by an as yet unidentified American revival miniaturist, who then must have been a contemporary of Laura Coombs Hills.

Additional helpful comments in support of the doubt about Officer include; "the boy is much softer and is dressed in theatrical costume, typical of many revival pieces and rarely, if ever, used during the 1840's and 50's, where the style was realism. Also, Officer did not use a solid grey background, in fact no American artist working in the 1840's did so, there is always some highlighting. "

Further images of the boy in 18C costume can be seen at Unknown - portrait of a boy

However, as it is of some interest, the following discussion about Officer has been retained. Officer studied under Thomas Sully and exhibited frequently at the Artist's Fund Society in Philadelphia. He also exhibited at the National Academy of Design and the American Art Union from 1846 to 1850.

After visiting Australia, in 1855 Officer moved to San Francisco where he opened a studio and achieved great success. Johnson quotes a contemporary comment about a miniature Officer painted in 1858 which had earned a certificate of merit and was praised for its "delicacy of handling, force of character and expression, and exquisiteness of finish." Officer also submitted a "photograph in oil" to a 1858 exhibition.

This description sounds unusual, but is probably intended to refer to a miniature painted in so much detail, that it resembled a photograph. This effect can be seen in the miniature of two children shown below. In his obituary Officer was described as "in all probability, the best portrait painter ever in California."

Johnson also comments, "To modern tastes Officer's early miniature portraits, painted from life, are more successful than his "fancy pieces", which are slick and overly sentimental. During the mid-nineteenth century, however, works of this kind held wide appeal." A description as "overly sentimental" seems to fit the miniature of the boy in 18C costume.

Unfortunately, Officer died an impoverished alcoholic and was buried in a public plot. At the time, this was probably the major reason why he was quickly forgotten as an artist.

If he had lived a full and sober life, no doubt he would have come to be regarded as a highly respected "elder statesman" painter of the 19C, as was the case with Nathaniel Rogers, Moses B Russell, John Wood Dodge, and John Henry Brown.

In this collection there are two miniatures attributed to Officer, both purchased at public auction without attribution, but since attributed, rightly or wrongly, to Thomas Story Officer.

They are shown here but are described more fully at Officer, Thomas Story - portrait of Dr Amos Hull and Officer, Thomas Story - portrait of two children In the Smithsonian American Art Museum there is one miniature by Officer, of a lady and it has some similarities to the boy in 18C costume, including being three-quarter length and its large size of 127 mm x 64 mm, see Portrait of a Lady

However, even though not by Officer, it is fair to say the miniature of the boy in 18C costume, is by a skilled artist.

Incidentally, if any reader knows the new owner of the Hills miniature, they may like to inform them that the miniature has been exhibited at least twice and is illustrated in two catalogues.

The first is in the PAFA exhibition of 1928 as exhibit 109. The second was in the 1933 National Miniature Exhibition of miniatures by living artists as exhibit 24. A photo is on page 6 of the catalogue and the sitter is identified as Helen Harlow.

As Laura Coombs Hills gave an address of 66 Chestnut St, Boston in the exhibition catalogue, the miniature was likely painted in 1928 with the sitter probably being the Helen Harlow found in the 1930 census aged 8 and living with her parents Edward and Elsie Harlow in Boston, where her father was a banker.

Turning to the issue of hammer prices. The one of the girl by Laura Coombs Hills achieved a hammer price of $40,000, ten times the lower estimate, and the miniature by John Wood Dodge achieved a hammer price of $20,000, say six and a half times the lower estimate.

However, the boy in 18C costume achieved a hammer price only at its lower estimate of $400.

Thus the girl achieved a hammer price of one hundred times that of the boy in 18C costume. This does rather beg the question, "Why?".

I am sure that far better brains than mine have considered this question for centuries, but the difference has set me puzzling and it seems there must be a list of relevant factors. As a result of some pondering, the following criteria are offered, in order of importance, as the elements which determine why some paintings, whether large or miniature, achieve high prices.

1 Buyer's ability to pay.
2 Buyer's desire to purchase.
3 A fully informed marketplace.
4 The importance of the sitter or appeal of the subject.
5 The importance of the artist.
6 The provenance and related history.
7 The artistic skill demonstrated in the painting.

For example, while I had a desire to purchase the miniature of the girl by Laura Coombs Hills, regretfully I did not have the ability to pay! There were three other miniatures by Laura Coombs Hills for sale at the Skinner auction. The hammer prices achieved for those three were; $17,000, $3750, and $12,000. Thus, the base value of a work by Hills could be said to be $3750, with the amount above that base being a premium for the sitters.

Based upon this, and if visitors to this collection can accept that the miniature of the boy in 18C costume is of similar artistic skill to the miniature of the girl with the mirror, then as the boy achieved only a hammer price of $400, it seems that the artistic skill of a painting by itself counts for little.

The boy in 18C clothes is less visually attractive than the Laura Coombs Hills, so the overall hammer price differential of $39,600 is a reflection of a lack of signature and a less appealing subject.

Although they are not of children, there are two miniatures by John Wood Dodge in this collection which can be artistically compared with his miniature above of a boy with cap and tassel. Both were acquired at public auction since 2000, but described by vendors as unattributed. Nevertheless, from the auction images the Dodge style was apparent and on opening them after arrival, the expected signatures were found. Unfortunately, one is badly cracked, but the Dodge skill is still evident.

The two portraits are shown here, but more detail can be seen at Dodge, John Wood - portrait of Eliza Budd and Dodge, John Wood - portrait of Reuben Kreider As they were unattributed on purchase, a cost comparison with the hammer price of the Dodge miniature sold by Case Antiques is not really relevant.

However, the average $350 cost of the two Dodges as unattributed, was comparable with the cost of the 18C, especially when allowance is made for the crack in one of the Dodges. In addition the average cost of the two miniatures attributed to Officer as above, was about $450 each. This seems to support a range of $400-$500 as a benchmark auction price for competent and attractive 19C American miniatures where there is no signature and no attribution.

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