Saturday, October 06, 2007

October 2007 - Miniatures, Condition, and Damage

Condition of Miniatures

A recent American visitor to the collection has asked the following question:

"I am just starting to collect miniature portraits, and I just love your collection and your website. I have a question about your opinion on condition of miniature portraits. I am really not interested in cracked ivory, but what if the crack is on the edge of the piece--is that considered as bad as through the center? I have larger paintings that have some restoration to them and I don't seem to mind. What is your opinion about painting touch ups to the background? I don't believe I would like it to the sitter. Any other opinions on condition that you have I would really be interested in hearing if you have the time."

Thus, I thought I would try and express my own thoughts on this subject. However, I stress these are my personal thoughts as an amateur collector and professionals may disagree with me.

Firstly, please note that cracks are not the end of the world. Even major museums hold cracked miniatures. A quick review of the 1994 Louvre Catalogue which depicts 700 miniatures, reveals that around 35 miniatures out of the 700 illustrated have unrepaired cracks due to shrinkage and an unknown number have repaired cracks. The 35 are virtually all large miniatures, where stress fractures are hard to avoid and so even though the smaller ones appear perfect, around half of the large miniatures in the Louvre have cracks.

This is a large miniature of the Misses Ball in this Artists and Ancestors collection, 8.5 inches by 6 inches (210mm x 150mm) and has cracking similar to that on large miniatures in the Louvre collection. This particular example has one restored crack, which can just be seen, and two unrestored cracks. Its very size makes it rare.

Types of Miniatures

Miniatures have been painted on many different grounds; from gold to tin, from ivory to milk glass, from wood to marble, and paper to vellum. Each of these grounds requires different painting techniques, some with a major change to technique, such as enamel on copper that need to be fired in a kiln, others less demanding, but still requiring a change in technique, for example a choice between watercolor, gouache, or oil on ivory.

Common Types of Damage

As there are so many different grounds, types of damage vary as well. Nevertheless, having regard to their age, it is surprising to me how good the average condition of a 200 year old miniature normally is.

As most are painted in watercolor, they are very susceptible to fading. Fortunately fading is rare as miniatures have generally been kept in drawers or other safe places for 200 years. In many instances, I feel these are the best places for them to remain for the next 200 years as well. (However, a collection can still be displayed on the Internet without risk of damage!)

Damage to miniatures on ivory is the form most commonly met, as they are the most common type of miniature and are susceptible to cracking or warping.

Showing here are rear and front views of a miniature by John Wood Dodge where the original framer taped the rigid backing too tightly to the ivory plaque, which then split as it dried out.

Warping and cracking are usually caused by poor framing or the effect of air-conditioning. Ivory has not been used for miniatures for the last 75 years, so preparing "new" ivory does not enter into the equation. When ivory was used in the 19C it was important to both prepare the ground and frame of the miniature correctly. However, there was little training, other than by experience, and so artists and framers often made mistakes.

Artists' mistakes were from inadequate preparation of the ground or their pigments, so the paint did not adhere properly, leading to flaking or color fading from use of fugitive colors.

For those not familiar with with how to identify ivory, it is easiest to describe it as having a grain effect like that of oak timber, almost as if it were a completely pale white oak veneer. This image of the rear of a large (125mm x 115mm) miniature by Rose Ellis, shows the oak-like ivory graining, particularly on the left. There is also a minor crack which appears as a dark line on the right. The plaque is so thin, the painting shows through.

Like a wood veneer, ivory dries out and shrinks across the grain, but not along the grain. Hence, when enclosed in a locket or other frame it was important the framed miniature not be fixed in position, especially at the sides. If the framer framed a miniature so the edges could not move with natural shrinkage, the stress created a fracture if the shrinkage continued.

Because of the horizontal weakness of ivory, it is best to hold an unframed miniature by the top and bottom, not by the sides. Also, it is best not to leave them outside their original frames, as temperature change or moisture content in the air can cause otherwise latent warping to curl the ivory. This warping can be hard to reverse and requires specialist techniques to do so.

Other grounds have problems, such as paint flaking or chips on enamel, or insect damage to paper or card. Water damage is also common. In rare instances there may be crystalline growth on the surface of an ivory miniature, as can be seen on the neck of this young lady, where the growths almost look like snowflakes. More commonly there is mold growth on the inside of the glass.

Apart from damage to the painting or the ground it is on, other areas of damage are usually to the case a miniature is housed in. With locket type cases the most frequently met types of damage are a chipped or broken glass, or a missing bezel or hanger.

Sometimes damage is due to careless cleaning with water or metal polish seeping inside the case to damage the portrait. Thus a closed case should only be cleaned with a cloth that is slightly damp, but not moist.

This miniature has water damage on the right, but has been retained as it is an early American miniature of around 1800, perhaps by James Peale. (The white at the bottom is scanner glare.)

The surface of a miniature should not be touched or blown upon. I have seen a couple of ruined miniatures where the owner tried to remove a speck of dust with a cloth or their finger, and removed facial features.

Remedying any of these defects requires training that is beyond an average collector and so requires a trained restorer. As such it is usually too expensive to consider restoration relative to the cost of an average miniature. Even locket case repairs such as replacement glasses or bezels are expensive, because the sizes of most 18C and 19C miniatures vary in size so much and there are not standard replacement parts.

What to do About Damage?

Generally, if I feel the damage is stable, I do nothing about it as I would prefer to use the money otherwise spent on restoration, to buy new miniatures. I feel that if a 200 year old miniature is now stable, it is not likely to deteriorate in the future, provided I am sensible about storage.

I have some experience of opening cases, but even so there are some cases in the collection where I am not willing to risk trying to open the case. An example of this is this miniature by Robert Fulton, the inventor of the steamship. It has dust and dry mold on the inside of the glass, and would look a lot better after a clean inside, but it is too hard to open.

If a case comes apart easily, my efforts are restricted to cleaning any mold off the inside of the glass with a damp cloth, drying the glass well, and lightly dusting the miniature with a small artist's brush.

Thus, while it would be nice to have them restored, the cost of restoration often outstrips any increase in value from such restoration. However, it may be appropriate for higher value items acquired by a dealer with the intention of resale, or for family miniatures which are likely to remain in one's family as an heirloom.

Should a Collector Buy a Damaged Miniature?

This comes back to the opening question. It is largely a matter of personal preference and depends upon the thickness of one's wallet. A very thick wallet can afford to only buy perfect specimens.

A more normal wallet can buy less than perfect specimens, then learn about specific artists and types of miniature from close examination of that less than perfect specimen. That learning experience may become useful in acquiring future miniatures, so a damaged miniature may contribute more to selecting future acquisitions, than its own diminution in value by reason of the damage.

It also depends upon whether one is collecting for investment or for the pleasure of collecting. As is perhaps apparent, this collection has been accumulated largely for the pleasure of collecting. However, if your objective is to collect primarily for investment or for resale, as with collections of any type with these objectives in mind, only perfect items should be acquired.

This miniature by Richard Morrell Staigg is one of the very few in the collection I have retouched. As you can see, on the left at 9 o'clock there were some small patches of paint loss, due to the paint adhering to an oval mount. Thus, I delicately filled them in to improve the overall visual effect.

Restored miniatures do have a handicap compared to large oil paintings restored to a similar degree. That handicap is that a miniature is generally viewed from close at hand, where as an oil is viewed from a distance. Hence restoration on a large oil is less obvious to the naked eye at normal viewing distance. Accordingly restoration of a miniature needs to be undertaken by a very skilled hand for it not to be obvious.

Generally, fractures at the edge of a miniature or retouched paint in the background do not bother me a great deal. I would prefer they were not there, but if I like the miniature, I am prepared to forgive minor condition issues.

Major cracking can also be overlooked if it is a miniature is by a good artist and one wants to have an example for comparative reference purposes.

Values of Miniatures and the Effect of Damage

It is hard to generalise on the effect of damage on value, major unrestored cracks might reduce a top artist by more than 50% and minor stress fractures for the same artist by 10%. Paint loss, or retouching already undertaken to a miniature, might reduce value by 25% for major retouching, down to 5% for minor retouches. However, these are not hard and fast rules.

They partially recognise that a work by a top artist can "afford" to be restored, whereas the value of a work by a lesser artist will not be able to "afford" to be restored.

It is rare to see a large American miniature with five sitters and even rarer to see a large damaged one at auction. Shown here is a miniature on ivory painted by a good artist George Harrison Hite in 1844. It is very large at 7 ins by 6 ins and has four cracks of varying degrees, left, centre, and right. It was offered for auction by Neal Auction Company on October 7, 2007, inviting an opening bid of $1300 and an estimate of $2000/$4000. At the auction, there was less interest than expected and so the miniature closed at a hammer price of only $1000. I did not bid, but do feel it was a bargain buy at that price. My guess is that had it been perfect, it would have sold for $8000/10,000.

I have no idea how much it would cost to restore, but even if it cost $700 to $1000, I could imagine such an unusual miniature selling for $3000/$5000 after restoration. Alternatively, while it would be a great shame to do so, the worst cracks in this particular miniature could be removed by cutting down the miniature in size so that it only encompassed the five heads! A preferable and very cheap treatment, would be to mask the worst cracks with a matt.

In my opinion, the inability of many miniatures to be able to "afford" to be restored, is influenced by the overall marketplace, with miniatures being largely forgotten as an art form, except by a few dedicated collectors. Thus there is less demand for miniatures than one might reasonably expect and so damaged miniatures get overlooked.

A personal view is that given the skill involved and their rarity, American miniatures are under-rated as an art form. The high prices for early art pottery and art glass, and other early Americana, compared to many American miniatures, surprise me. Many advertising collectibles achieve prices far and away above the skill needed to create them. What is even more strange, is that many early 20C decorative miniatures sell for similar, or even higher, prices than unique miniature portraits by good artists from the early 19C.

All of this is probably because of the small number of American miniature collectors. In turn I think the small number of collectors relates to the lack of readily available research on American miniatures, making it a "chicken and egg" situation.

Shortage of Research Information

The miniature painters who attract the higher prices tend to be those who signed their work, or those whose work is very distinctive. Knowledge creates demand, but there is very little readily available scholarship on artists and there are very few people who have the knowledge to attribute miniatures to specific artists.

There is no comprehensive dictionary of American miniature painters containing examples of their work, which would assist in attributing unsigned miniatures to specific artists. In contrast, Leo Schidlof prepared a comprehensive dictionary of European artists with many illustrations in 1960. Daphne Foskett prepared an excellent dictionary of British miniature artists in 1987 and a similar dictionary of French miniature painters is currently under preparation in France

There are a number of excellent collections in art museums, but none of these have comprehensive catalogues prepared within the last fifteen years.

The catalogue for the National Museum of American Art was published 23 years ago in 1984, but the color images which are part of that catalogue are grouped on microfiche, each 150mm x 115mm, so the individual images are virtually impossible to see. An example fiche is shown here with 84 images, each miniature much smaller than a fingernail.

The Gibbes Museum has a fine collection, but their black and white catalogue was also published 23 years ago in 1984. The Worcester Art Museum catalogue dates from 1989. The best available is the catalogue of the Manney Collection published by the Metropolitan Museum of Art 17 years ago in 1990, but even that catalogue is mostly illustrated in black and white and thus of limited value in making attributions. The Cincinnati Art Museum published a fine exhibition catalogue in color last year, but very few American miniatures are illustrated in it.

This is not to criticise these institutions, but just to illustrate how far miniatures are down the pecking order when it comes to recent research.

Although no doubt with some wrong attributions, this website is trying to help fill the gap by displaying color images together with research comments. Thus, if any visitor to Artists and Ancestors knows an American art patron willing to support a recognised scholar (not an amateur like me!), to prepare a comprehensive dictionary of American miniature painters it would be a welcome addition to the subject.

Such a dictionary containing multiple color examples of artists' work would, I believe, lead to an immediate increase in interest in collecting miniature portraits. Increased interest would tend to raise the value of miniatures, but of more relevance, is that the consequent increase in the average value would increase the proportion of miniatures where it was worthwhile to undertake restoration, thus preserving them as important historical artworks.

With damage being less apparent after such restoration, I believe the fact of restoration of a miniature would become more acceptable. Perhaps leading to a marketplace more akin to that for large paintings from 200 years ago, where there is an expectation that "honorable" scars of extreme old age need careful attention from time to time.

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