The smart collector: Portrait miniatures big in 18th, early 19th centuries

2013-08-11T00:00:00Z The smart collector: Portrait miniatures big in 18th, early 19th centuriesDanielle Arnet The Smart Collector Arizona Daily Star
August 11, 2013 12:00 am  • 

Q: Any info on my paintings signed Faleinell? Each is about 2 by 3 inches plus the frame. I'd like to know something about the artist, when they were painted, and value.

A: Our reader adds that she thinks her pieces were done in water-based paint because while cleaning one, a streak in the paint appeared.

Looking at photos sent, we see two portrait miniatures in black oval frames with a gilt inner ring.

Many buyers go for portrait miniatures because they are decorative and fit easily into just about any décor. Of course, serious collectors tend to specialize by subject and material, even historical era.

True portrait miniatures show only a subject's head and shoulders; the entire piece does not exceed 4 or 5 inches. Minis date from the 1700s, though their height of popularity was in the 18th to early 19th century. After that, miniatures had to compete with photography.

The genre is large and complicated, but I can boil it down to this: There are historic and significant portrait miniatures, and there are decorative miniatures.

Historic portrait minis are early and were done on ivory or a substitute, on vellum, or in watercolor on period paper.

Decorative portrait minis often feature Colonial ladies (think Williamsburg) with white wigs and/or big hats. Men in Colonial dress are less often seen, and they sell for less. A major exception is a significant male or one wearing a uniform. Sometimes both.

On www.liveauctioneers.com, we found a portrait miniature of young Tsar Alexander II that sold for $15,000 last May in New York. The mini is attributed to a known painter. This one represents the best in historical portrait miniatures.

For the general market, 18th and 19th century American portrait miniatures are most popular. Here buyers buy what they like, and frame aesthetics matter a great deal. Enough minis of pretty ladies in Colonial dress exist that buyers can and do call the shots.

On the same site, we spotted a later pair of ladies that sold at auction for $175. They were less skillfully hand-painted on porcelain and mounted in rococo brass frames. Obviously, fancy frames enhanced the result.

I think the reader called it right in thinking her portraits are watercolors. They may well be hand-painted, though photos are not clear. It's hard to tell. The streak at one lady's head is a flaw, though a restorer could take care of it. But that is an expensive service.

This set is decorative, probably early 20th century. Italian artists did not figure large in old portrait minis, and we could not track the name. This pair was probably made sometime during the last century, possibly during the 1930s when there was a Colonial revival. Frames also point to that period.

I suggest that our reader look on eBay to see what's out there. We found more than 800 examples for sale under "antique portrait miniatures." None matched the reader's, but scrolling through was instructive, and free. Use a library computer if you don't have one at home.

The value for the pair as is would be as decorative objects, probably around $50 to $100.

BOOK IT!

"Barclay Butera: Getaways and Retreats" (Gibbs Smith, $40) is a perfect escape for the dog days. Actually, anytime. Organizing his getaways - we assume they are commissions - by season, the designer ranges from sea theme to a stone lodge to a desert retreat. While his line of furnishings is the base, use of found objects with design strengths (vintage luggage, beach finds) makes the book good for ideas.

COLLECTOR QUIZ

Q: What was the earliest paper money in the United States: currency notes by the 13 colonies and the state of Vermont, Massachusetts Bay Colony notes, New Jersey notes?

A: Trick question! All date from the 1760s. Source: "Paper Money of the United States: 20th Edition" by Arthur L. and Ira S. Friedberg

Danielle Arnet welcomes questions from readers. She cannot respond to each one individually, but will answer those of general interest in her column. Send email to smartcollector@comcast.net

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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