March 2012 - The Need for Caution

Caveat Emptor
As with any purchase, a buyer should take care and learn a little about a subject. I am often asked to comment on decorative miniatures, which invites the question "How can one tell a "real" miniature from a "decorative" miniature. That is not as daunting as it sounds, although it is sometimes hard to explain in a few words. To try and assist here are some more comments on things to look out for.

By way of comparison, the example I quote is that I would expect that most ladies, if asked from five or ten yards away, to say which of six dresses were made from; silk, cotton, nylon, wool, linen, or calico would have little hesitation in matching dresses and fabrics. However, it might then take them quite a wordy explanation to convey the differences to a "mere" male!

Collectors need to be careful about relying upon a seller's description. Here are three decorative miniature portraits of Napoleon currently for sale on eBay.

The first is described as; "THIS IS AN AUCTION FOR A BEAUTIFUL LARGE KPM -HUTSCHENREUTHER-QUALITY ,PORCELAIN PLAQUE PAINTING of "NAPOLEON BONAPARTE OF FRANCE". IT IS FROM OUR PRIVATE FAMILY COLLECTION. MEASUREMENTS ARE appx. 5" X 3 3/4" It invites an opening bid of $799. The description is reasonably accurate, although it is overpriced.

The second is described as; "This is an important signed portrait miniature of NAPOLEON by EDWARD BIRD Royal Academy he was born in Wolverhampton 1772 - 1819 and became Court Painter to Princess Charlotte who was daughter to King George IV. The portrait is of course NAPOLEON and is on a domed - curved bit of enamel ....with E.B. signature intials behind his bust. Looking on the back of the simple wood frame you see its got an old bit of paper ..Napoleon by E. Bird R.A. 1798 Enamel. ...there is some more wording in pencil which I cannot read." It invites an opening bid of £3250 !! Despite the attribution, I do not believe the portrait is by E Bird. The quality is too poor and the uniform the wrong colour, it should be green, not blue. I believe it dates from the early 20C and was probably intended to deceive prospective purchasers.

The third is described as; "THIS IS AN AUCTION FOR A RARE AND BEAUTIFUL , KPM QUALITY GILT BRONZE ORMOLU FRAME WITH PASTE AND ANTIQUE RHINESTONES ,PORCELAIN PLAQUE PORTRAIT PAINTING of THE FAMOUS "NAPOLEON BONAPARTE". BORN AUGUST 15,1769 AND DIED MAY 5, 1821. IT IS FROM OUR PRIVATE FAMILY COLLECTION. C- LATE 1800'S MEASUREMENTS ARE appx. 3 " X 2 1/2"." It invites an opening bid of $299. Although the most reasonably priced of the three, it still has problems in that the uniform is again the wrong colour and Napoleon is depicted with a mustache.

These colour errors arise when portraits are copied from black and white engravings and the artist is too lazy to research the correct colours. Thus all real collectors will steer well clear of these three decorative copies, without even giving them a second look.

A recent sale on eBay was a pair of miniatures which sold for $1775 after being given a glowing attribution to Sarah Goodridge by the seller. However, I very much doubt the pair of miniatures were by her. There were described as;
This is a very rare pair of miniature portrait paintings by Sarah Goodridge. Goodridge was a miniature on ivory portrait artist who lived from 1788-1853 and primarily painted in Massachusetts. There is some writing on backs of the frame and there is also some documentation from a Vose Gallery letter dated 1949 which did some research on them. They told the owners their research found that these were done by Sarah Goodridge and were listed in the Frick Art Reference Library of New York. I believe the sitters in the pictures are identified on back but it is hard to make out. I believe it is a Boston Sea Captain and his wife. The paintings measure 3.25x2.5 inches. The frames measure 6x5 inches. The paintings are unsigned which is why Vose Gallery did such diligent research on them. Vose Gallery is one of the leading antique art Galleries in the Country with locations in Boston and New York, and still exists to this day. The letter will be included in with the sale. Goodridge is a well known miniature artist and some of her miniature paintings have sold for $8,000!!!! at auction. She is a highly sought after early American artist and her works are very hard to come by.

This is an instance where scholarship has advanced a long way since the earlier dealer claimed they were by Sarah Goodridge. In 1949 there were very few reference books with images for comparison and hence attributions were often more made in hope than knowledge. If dealers or collectors had still believed they were by Sarah Goodridge, the price would have been much higher.

A week ago I was asked if I would be willing to purchase a beautiful miniature portrait of a young lady which the owner had been assured by museum experts thirty years ago was by Charles Willson Peale. I replied it would probably be too expensive for me, but I would still be interested to see it. The owner then sent me a picture. It was certainly very attractive, but I had to tell the owner that, regretfully, I did not believe it was by Peale, instead it was more likely by Nathaniel Rogers. This is another instance where knowledge has moved on in the last 30 years.

But mistakes are still being made. I was browsing the Internet when I came across this link; /miniportrait/ It is a misleading piece describing miniature portraits in the Milwaukee Public Museum collection. The author was described as; "Janean Mollet holds a Master's degree in Anthroplogy and a Certificate in Museum Studies from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Ms. Mollet is the Curator of Collections for the Museum of Yesteryear in Milwaukee, WI and guest researcher in American material culture with the MPM History Section."

Concerning to me is that such articles are still being written which are so inaccurate, thus I politely wrote to the Milwaukee Museum. However, I received no reply to my message, which in part read as follows;
I write regularly about miniature portraits on my website at and have been collecting miniatures for over 25 years, but regret to advise you that Figures 3 and 4 are not by David. They are instead low quality decorative miniatures from the early 20C. Unfortunately, many museum collections contain miniature portraits gifted in good faith as genuine in previous years, but scholarship has moved on a long way in the last 20 years. Figure 5 is also a decorative copy from the early 20C. ... If it would help you, I am very happy to review, without charge, images of your museum collection and advise whether there are more decorative copies among the collection.

I have talked before about photographic bases. Several weeks ago this miniature portrait was offered on eBay. If one looks closely at the back of her neck, it is possible to see a previous owner has tried to clean it and wiped the paint from the back of her neck, revealing the photograph underneath. I noticed that, so was not interested and I think it sold for about $150.

I notice the subsequent purchaser has now re-listed it on eBay, but without drawing attention to the damage or to the photographic base. It being described as "An American watercolor hand-painted portrait miniature circa 1885, of a blonde woman. The painting is held in a black leather wallet and is in good condition. Please note that the painting is only sitting loosely in the wallet--it is not fixed there, and is not behind glass. The dimensions of the image are 3 1/4 x 2 3/4 inches."

However, please do not take too much fright about collecting and buying miniatures, instead just take as much care as if you were wanting to be sure you were buying a dress made of silk, not of calico!

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