Sunday, September 23, 2007

September 2007 - George Washington and Auction Prices

The following comments on auction prices will be old news for some, but I was reminded of them when I saw that three miniatures of Washington are coming up for auction in October.

George Washington and the British Royal family were on opposing sides in the late 18C, but both Washington and the Windsors must have trembled at a recent threat from a person the Windsors might have, in modern parlance, described as a 17C terrorist. The man in question being Oliver Cromwell, who had King Charles I beheaded.

More specifically, the threat was in the form of an auction price for a miniature of Oliver Cromwell by Samuel Cooper sold in June, which came close to exceeding George Washington's claim for the highest auction price ever for a miniature portrait.

In January 2001, a miniature of George Washington by John Ramage was sold for a hammer price of $1,200,000. At the time, this may have been the most expensive painting of any size in the world, based upon the cost per square inch.

The miniature was so remarkable, that Christie's produced the hard cover catalogue shown here of 50 pages, which covered the single lot!

The British royal family tried to match this record recently with a miniature of Elizabeth I painted by Hilliard and sold at Christie's, but it fell well short at (only?) GBP230,000.

However, next day Sotheby's came close to beating the Washington record with a miniature of Oliver Cromwell which had an estimate of GBP100,000/GBP150,000, but in fact sold for GBP 535,000, say $1,000,000.

If you will pardon a bad pun, this puts Cromwell "a head" of Elizabeth I, as well as Charles I.

Cromwell is credited with first use of the expression "warts and all", when asked by the artist how he wanted to be painted. The miniature is one of just a handful of portraits of Cromwell to be completed during his lifetime. It is based on a sketch Cooper made from life in 1653, the year Cromwell became Lord Protector, and which Cooper used to work up all subsequent pictures.

No doubt the under-bidder was disappointed not to win the miniature of Cromwell.

However, I have good news for them. If they would still like a miniature of Cromwell, they are welcome to buy the enamel on copper miniature I have in this collection for GBP500,000!

The only minor issue being that I think it is a modern copy. Nevertheless, most people viewing it would not realise that unless they were told. Thus, as in stamp collecting terms, it would still make an excellent space filler!

The Cromwell miniature nearly doubled the previous record price for a European miniature, which was a price of GBP275,000 recorded at Christie's in 1996 for an enamel miniature of the Duke of Buckingham painted by Jean Petitot.

George Washington has an opportunity to extend his lead for the highest record price on October 13, when there are three miniature portraits of him being offered at auction; two with estimates in the range $20,000/$30,000 and the third $80,000/$120,000. They are all said to be by Walter Robertson (1750-1802), but my knowledge is not good enough to confirm that, and so it will be interesting to see whether the market place agrees with any of the attributions.

Perhaps more interesting at that auction will be four miniatures by Charles Willson Peale. They have estimates of $20,000/$30,000, 2 @ $40,000/$60,000, and the fourth at $80,000/$120,000. I am not familiar with the current record for a Charles Willson Peale, but it may be broken at the sale.

In any event it will be interesting to compare the prices with those for John Wood Dodge and Laura Coombs Hills mentioned in my previous post.

Reverting back to the subject of George Washington, fisherman always say the best fish was the one that got away! In April 2005, I thought I had a chance of a big fish. Ruggiero Associates offered the miniature of George Washington shown here.

It had an estimate of $500/$800 and was described only as;
"An unsigned enameled miniature portrait of George Washington, the paper backing bears the writing in script "General Washington". This miniature was given to the current owner by Fairsman Dick who is a descendant of a Dr. Dick who by oral family history was a physician for George Washington and was given this by Washington himself. A letter explaining the connection written by the current owner will accompany the lot."

I remembered seeing a similar image in one of my reference books and found it again in "Love and Loss", by Robin Jaffee Frank, where there was comment that William Russell Birch had painted a number of copies in enamel.

I also searched the Internet and found that Dr Dick had been one of three doctors in attendance at the time of Washington's death. Dr Dick, the most recently trained, but junior of the three, actually recommended the then revolutionary treatment of a tracheotomy, which would have saved Washington's life, but Dick was over-ruled by the other doctors who thought it was too daring.

Also on the Internet, a dealer had a lesser enamel of Washington by Birch for sale for around $70,000. Given all this and the auctioneer's estimate of $500/$800, I thought I had a really good chance to win such an important miniature and therefore pawned my mother to raise the $12,000 which would enable me to make a winning bid! Miles more than I had ever bid before (or since!).

Needless to say, my mother was relieved when I returned to the pawnshop to reclaim her, as the experts with the money to buy, had outstripped my desire to buy! The final price being $126,000.

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