Saturday, November 24, 2007

November 2007 - Interesting Items at Auction

During the last few weeks there have been a number of interesting American miniature portraits sold at auction and it is worth recording a few comments about some of them. They were all sold at public auction and the hammer prices recorded below are before adding buyer's commission.

There are several it would have been nice to acquire, but without access to a bottomless wallet, it was necessary to refrain from bidding on them. Thus none of those commented on in this post have been acquired. Two of them were wrongly attributed by the auction houses concerned, which shows the importance of potential buyers undertaking their own evaluations.

The first pair as above were unattributed and listed with an estimate of $2000/$3000 and an opening bid of $1500. The opening seemed a little high and during the auction it appears that due to lack of interest, the opening bid was lowered to $750 for the pair and they sold at this price.

I feel this was a good buy at $750 and if I had been bidding at the auction, I would have bid beyond this level, as the sitters were identified as William Bethel and Mary Ash, and their marriage is recorded in Philadelphia in 1797. (Update - the $750 must have been the passed in value, as they were later offered in April 2008 where they sold for a hammer price of $900.)

The next one of a man with a pearl border was also unattributed and offered with a low start and an estimate of $800/$1200. The auction catalogue suggested it was in the style of Peale.

However, this was an error, as I am confident it is by Anson Dickinson. The miniature is almost identical to one by Dickinson in the National Museum of American Art, see Bolton-Smith, Fiche 1G2. The bidders appear to have agreed with the Dickinson attribution, as it sold for $1400. This is quite a reasonable price as his work can sell for much more.

One miniature that was attributed by the auction house concerned, was an oval portrait of a man wearing a wig and a waistcoat which was attributed to James Peale. It had an estimate of $1500/$2500 and sold for $1700.

This was over-priced, as in my personal opinion it is not by James Peale, although it is perhaps a copy of a miniature by him.

A signed miniature of a man with a white upturned collar, by Pamela Hill (sometimes Pamelia Hill) was offered with an estimate of $400/$600, but sold for $1700. It was signed "Pamela Hill, Boston, 1823". Her work is uncommon and so this was a good price for a miniature which is not terribly attractive in itself.

None of the above were offered by Skinners, but amongst a wide range of folk art Skinners did offer a selection of ten miniatures all by James Sanford Ellsworth. It is unusual to see so many miniatures by him offered at one time.

In this instance, that was probably the reason for these selling below previous prices for his work. The estimates varied considerably, as did the hammer prices which ranged from $900 to $6000. The highest and lowest are both shown here.

Skinners also sold a miniature portrait of a lady wearing a bonnet by John Wesley Jarvis. Signed works by him are rare and this one was signed "Jarvis No. 122 Broadway 1807".

The estimate was $400/$600 but the hammer price was $1800. This seems a good price for a miniature on paper, but that is explained by the signature and the sitter also being identified.

Another interesting miniature auctioned by a different auction house is that of a man, said to be Lafayette, although I am unable to confirm that. The estimate was $3000/$5000 and it sold for $3000. From the photos, the miniature appeared to have two cracks on the left hand side.

There is a note on the reverse in a later hand which reads; "Lafayette, M-ucci? Pinxit Anno 1825". This must refer to the artist Antonio Meucci.

There is one miniature by him in this collection, but with great assistance from a descendent of Antonio Meucci who owns several miniatures by him, a biography of Meucci has been added to this website at Chilean collector - Antonio Meucci portraits

All the above miniatures are American. However one British miniature did catch my eye, although not as a bidder! It does illustrate how important provenance can be to a miniature, and also how much accompanying memorabilia can add to the value of a miniature.

The miniature was of an identified midshipman and was accompanied by a Royal Navy General Service Medal, together with three letters. The sitter seems to have later become a Reverend and so did not pursue a distinguished naval career. The miniature itself was not attributed to any artist. The estimate was GBP16,000/GBP18,000 but the hammer price was GBP51,500.

After buyer's commission that would be around GBP60,000. This is equivalent to over US$120,000 and thus several times the combined value of all the American miniatures mentioned in this post.

This seems an extraordinary price for a miniature of not particularly great merit, even if it is perhaps by William Wood. The medal must be a major factor and does emphasise the importance of provenance.

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