Friday, October 26, 2007

October 2007 - Seven Years in Aladdin's Cave

Riding a Roller-Coaster through Aladdin's Cave
For those not used to buying on the Internet, but who are thinking about doing so, it may be helpful to learn of some thoughts and experiences accumulated in the past seven years, since miniatures for this collection were first added via the Internet. Since then it has been like riding a roller-coaster through Aladdin's Cave, hoping to win some of the beautiful portraits for auction as they rush past.

Unfortunately, one cannot hope to win all the miniatures which appeal.

Thus there are highs from interesting research and advantageous purchases, and lows from being outbid, such as happened with this fine enamel miniature by Henry Pierce Bone which has just sold for $5,600. That may well be a record for any miniature sold on eBay outside of a combined eBay/live auction, as I cannot remember one going for a higher price.

However there is one benefit of missing out on an auction lot, the otherwise scarce funds are then still available for another auction!

Thus a missed purchase such as the Bone is a temporary disappointment, as something else will appear, and there are already the two miniatures shown here by Henry Pierce Bone in the collection; of Lord Byron and the Earl of Salisbury.

A recent visitor rightly noted the great variability of quality in the collection and fairly asked if I had ever turned anything down! That is a very fair question.

Well, I guess the answer to that is yes. In buying on the Internet for seven years and with say, 12 to 15, real or decorative miniatures being individually offered at Internet auctions like eBay (excluding the majors like Bonhams, Sotheby's and Christie's) every day, I think that is around 5000/6000 being offered per year and 40,000 over seven years. After adding in auctions by the major auction houses, that must be around a total of 50,000 miniatures offered at auction over the last seven years.

Thus you could say I have purchased around 2% of those "offered" to me.

In the pre Internet time, in 2000 there were British miniatures in the collection, but all the American and European, and most of the British miniatures have been acquired since then. Many of the British items from 2000 have now been sold, so that about 90% of the miniatures on display have been acquired via the Internet in the last seven years.

The Learning Process
In the "pre-online" days and also during the early "Internet period", the buying judgement exercised was often more poor, and at best mixed. Not having any art training, nor a mentor, meant that trial and error was a stern teacher.

Pre the Internet, miniatures were rarely seen and so purchased blissfully unaware of artists, sitters, quality, or even what was a decorative miniature. In many instances prices paid were too high and the quality was variable. Some of those earlier items are still being weeded out, although others remain for sentimental reasons.

Compared to a hand to mouth scenario where miniatures were hard to find, searching the Internet was like opening Aladdin's Cave. The sheer volume and variety on offer forced an improvement in buying disciplines, as buying became selective to stretch a shrinking wallet. However, there has always been a streak of "magpie" collecting, looking for bright or unusual items! Such "magpie" collecting is the prerogative of any amateur collector who can acquire items that dealers and museums would rightly shun.

A reference library was gradually acquired via the Internet and now comprises about 150 books, plus a number of auction catalogues. Buying reference books is a little like Lord Leverhulme's remark about Lever Bros advertising expenditure, "half will be a waste of money, but it is impossible to know beforehand which half". Nevertheless, good reference books are invaluable.

Risk of Fraud and Dishonesty
Many people are rightly cautious about using the Internet, as they fear fraud and dishonesty. Fraud and dishonesty does exist, and I have been caught on several occasions. Nevertheless, my personal experience is that over 99% of people are honest.

Overall, I guess I have had over 2,000 Internet transactions. Fraudulent or dishonest transactions, including lost parcels which were uninsured, out of that total of 2,000 are less than ten, and they have probably cost me around $3000 in total. This sounds a lot of money, but must be balanced by the benefits at the other end of the spectrum. Just one "bargain" buy can more than offset the $3000.

By way of example, these two miniatures by Domenico Bossi and Marie Durieux were purchased at public auction in 2000 as a pair for under $250. Their combined value is much more than ten times $250, so the potential gain on just this pair, has more than offset total losses on all the fraudulent and dishonest transactions.

Thus, while there is a need to be careful, one needs to recognise that from time to time there will be a transaction that goes wrong. To give due credit to online auctioneers, I think due to their improved systems, there is now much less risk of loss.

Mail Services
Significant credit should also be given to the various postal services. USPS, Royal Mail and other public mail services which are often 90% cheaper than private courier services such as UPS, Fedex, and DHL, and they are just as reliable. I have sent or received parcels from around 20 different countries, and can think of less than five instances out of over 2000 transactions where a parcel has not arrived. My loss on these is included in the $3000 of losses noted above, but again the postal savings from using USPS and Royal Mail instead of couriers, far outweigh the cost of the infrequent losses.

Artists and Ancestors
It is now eighteen months since this blog/website commenced, with the first posts being made in April 2006. However, it took about six months to develop to its current format and so now is about the one year anniversary.

The website was developed using a standard blog template and website, as those services were free. A purpose built website would look better, but involves ongoing maintenance and development costs. Instead I am still using both my year 2000 vintage computer and scanner, although now with Mozilla Firefox which is free, replacing Windows 98SE as the Internet browser, so technology costs are minimal apart from a broadband link. (Anyone tempted to follow the format to display their own collection can follow the free example at Home The process is much easier than it might sound.)

There were several reasons for starting the website and other benefits have become apparent over time. The initial reason was to have a photographic record of the collection in a place other than my own computer. I feared I could go to a lot of trouble to load the information on my own computer, but then risk having the computer crash irretrievably or be stolen and thus lose all the work. It also made it much easier to share images with the people I was corresponding with. Previously, I had on several occasions sent vast numbers of images by email which was a logistical nightmare.

Since also keeping research on the website, it has proved an ideal way to copy and paste research comments and hyperlink to research elsewhere on the Internet. The need for daily /weekly backing up on a personal computer is avoided, although there is merit in occasionally copying and pasting the files into Word documents, in case Google ever crashes irretrievably.

Initially it was a lot of hard work to scan the images and add in brief descriptions. Many descriptions from the earlier stages are overly brief and those miniatures deserve more research and better descriptions. Sizes of miniatures have been left out of most descriptions only because of the magnitude of the task. The website has "growed like Topsy" since April 2006, but has now more or less settled down and is easy to manage.

Reaching an Audience
As the rate of acquisition has slowed, there has been more time to try and make postings interesting for visitors. It has been gratifying to realise there is an ability to attract visitors to a blog. This is somewhat difficult to measure, as a website is like a TV station, broadcasting out into the great unknown.

However, the Google search engine does give some feedback, by showing where a website ranks when given terms are searched for. I do not know how Google arrives at its overall population count for a given search term and the overall "population" number seems to vary significantly over time. "Miniature" is too generic a term to search on the Internet, thus one needs to use combinations of miniature and portrait. A year ago "Artists and Ancestors" did not rank at all in any Google searches, but now its site ranking is quite high as shown in the table below.

Ranking as at October 2007
Google search term ...........Total population......Artists and Ancestors
miniature portrait ............... 1,880,000 ....................... 3
"miniature portrait"....................82,800 ....................... 3
portrait miniature ............... 1,870,000 ....................... 3
"portrait miniature" ................... 48,800 ....................... 1

The ranking can vary from day to day, but it is pleasing to rank so highly after such a brief existence, even above Wikipedia in one instance.

Let's Call the Whole Thing Off
The above search terms "miniature portrait" and "portrait miniature", lead easily into a discussion of semantics which reminds me of the song title; "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off", the Fred Astaire song which included the lyrics;

"You like potayto and I like potahto,
You like tomayto and I like tomahto;
Potayto, potahto, tomayto, tomahto!
Let's call the whole thing off!"

"Miniature portrait" or "portrait miniature", which is correct? I feel either are "correct". Although I use portrait miniature in my website address, I mostly say "miniature portrait". I have not seen any written reference which discusses the derivation of the two options, but my feeling is that the use "portrait miniature" probably arose via terms such as "cabinet miniature" as something that could be displayed in a cabinet, as opposed to "miniature cabinet".

My logic for preferring miniature portrait is that most people talk about an "oil portrait" not a "portrait oil", a "watercolour portrait" not a "portrait watercolour", and a "photographic portrait" not a "portrait photograph".

Art or Antiques ?
Another variable is whether to classify miniatures as Art or Antiques. I think in the past there was resistance from Fine Art scholars (may still be?) against including miniatures as a Fine Art form, instead opting to categorise miniatures as Antiques.

The distinction probably initially arose as the miniaturist was often also the case maker. However, since the late 18C painting miniatures and making cases/frames, have become separate skills.

It does not matter a great deal, but my own feeling is that in the current world, miniatures are closer to Art than to Antiques.

Hence art museums seem slightly more the more logical place for miniatures to be displayed, than in traditional museums. There are many instances of artists painting both large oils and miniatures, so some references tend to overlap. Also, restorative techniques and proper miniature storage requirements may be more closely aligned to art museums.

That is not to say miniatures should be removed from traditional museums, for relocation to art museums, but just to ruminate on the current situation and speculate on the likely trend for the future.

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