Collecting Portrait

Miniatures on a Limited Budget

By Stefanie Deutsch

Miniature Portrait: Signed: S. De Coudres, French?, Late 1800‘s, Paid US $ 30

If you look at miniature prices on specialized dealers websites or at the big London auction houses, you’ll likely find miniatures mostly in the $ (or Pound) 1000+ range, with the sky being the limit. These are the best sources if you can spend that sort of money and/or are not yet knowledgeable about the field. With that in mind, collectors who put some work into learning and are willing to hunt for good deals can often buy for much cheaper. I personally spend about $50-$200 per miniature on average. These miniatures are oftentimes in unrestored condition, badly framed, damaged, of lesser artistic merit (but still interesting), not in a sought-after style/period, or just not yet attributed. Sometimes, however, this price point can still offer miniatures as good as those found at specialist dealers!

Lady by Andrew Plimer, 1763—1837, English.

Paid US $ 650

French,
About 1810.

Unusual Background.

Dandy Gent,
Brooch Setting, 1830‘s,
Maybe American.
Paid US $ 130

Finding quality miniatures entails hunting for pieces at auctions, most of which being online, and antique stores. It is important to note that information provided by these sellers is oftentimes inaccurate or completely incorrect, so buyer beware. ‘Grand Tour’ miniatures and outright copies are (often unwittingly) offered as originals, despite being 80-90% of what is on the market. By building a personal understanding of miniatures, you can limit your chance of buying such an overpriced piece. I personally gained a lot of my knowledge twenty years ago through studying boxes of old Christie’s and Bonham’s miniature catalogues, but this learning can now be done much more efficiently online.

Through these studies one can learn to date miniatures through a variety of indicators, mainly through the miniatures’ format, shape, framing, paint style and the sitters’ hairstyle and clothing.

Even though nice quality miniatures can still be bought in the low $100 range, I’ve found that most collectors (myself included) can’t afford to build a sizable collection up-front. There is a way, albeit time consuming, for seasoned collectors to finance a collection by letting it pay off itself, using money from sales to fund new buys. Miniatures are often offered in lots, so collectors can select pieces which they wish to keep and sell the less desirable pieces of the lot and of one’s collection. These less desirable pieces are not necessarily of bad quality, but might be of a style which one has ‘too many’ of, or of an artist/sitter of which one already owns a better example.

Self portrait by the miniature painter Carl Daniel Dietrich, and his wife. Note the miniature he is painting, the one he is wearing as a ring and his wife‘s miniature pendant. German or Austrian, about 1820. Paid US $ 60 for him and US $ 120 for her.

Unusual miniature in several ways. It is in profile, not up front. The sitter is reading a newspaper?

The lady wears some sort of habit, maybe a nun?

But a nun would not have been depicted reading a newspaper. Dates to the early to mid 1800‘s.

Paid US $ 80.

Continental lady, 1840‘s. Unusual background with a hand holding a key reaching down from a curtain.

Likely to mean she was an heiress who wanted to cement her position with such a miniature, showing that the person she inherited her status from personally was giving her the key to the estate from the great beyond.

Paid US $ 125

As with all collecting fields, the best deals on miniatures can often be found by looking for those which aren’t in fashion at the moment. The whole field goes through cycles, with specific painters, sitters or even whole periods being in fashion and expensive, with these tastes changing over the years. At the time of writing twentieth century miniatures are especially cheap, and often can be picked up for less than $50 a piece.

The most expensive pieces are portraits of known and beautiful sitters by excellent painters in perfect condition and in a lovely period frame. Of course, if one is buying on a budget, one often must compromise at some (or many!) of these points. An existing miniature’s value and appeal can often be improved, be it tangibly by exchanging the frame or giving it to a restorer, or by simply attributing the piece.

Another splurge, paid US $ 440, even in that condition with cracks. The miniature is French, early 1800‘s, signed on bottom, but partially covered by frame and I did not want to risk to open that.

Rare family portrait.

Also unusual is the 4/5 pose and the living room setting.

Note the pictures in the background. Likely German in origin, about 1870‘s to 80‘s.

Paid US $ 230

When choosing a miniature for my collection I primarily look at the quality of the painting and the characterization of the sitter. I personally feel that, while a beautiful miniature/sitter is nice, the piece’s character is more important – I want to be able to imagine the life of the person who sat for this portrait. I don’t put too much value on the painter’s name (or signature), I’d rather have a good miniature by an unknown artist than one from a good artist who had a bad day. I also welcome miniatures with condition problems, even ones which can’t properly be fixed (like those with cracks). These paintings are pieces of history, not produced yesterday, and should be allowed to show their life.

Mother and child.
This miniature is not of great quality, but a touching scene and it shows that one can get miniatures for any price point.
Early 1900‘s.

Paid under US $ 10

Miniature of Marguerite Cazaux plying the harp. Marguerite was a Prof. de Harpe at the Toulouse Conservatory in the early to mid 1900‘s. The miniature is likely from around 1915. The signature looks like Mercedez Dusomez.

Paid US $ 150

Unusual miniature with four faces and with a faceted garnet stone in the center. Not signed, but likely French and from the late 1700‘s.

One of the ladies pictured has her eyes closed, she may have been deceased when the miniature was painted. I think the four ladies were either close friends or family members and had the miniature commissioned to show that they were so close as if they shared a single heart-depicted by the garnet.

Paid US $ 125

The miniatures pictured with prices have been bought in 2018.

If you have any questions regarding portrait miniatures, or just want to chat about this tantalizing
field of collecting, feel free to contact me at sdeutsch@shaw.ca.

Happy hunting!

© Stefanie Deutsch

sdeutsch@shaw.ca

A few words about the Author

Stefanie Deutsch collects antique portrait miniatures for over 20 years. Her previous collecting passion were vintage Barbie dolls. She wrote two popular  Barbie price guides, but eventually decided to sell her collection in part because of space restraints. Looking for something else to collect that encompasses her love for fashion, historical interest and attention to detail, and without the danger of either running out of space or of examples to collect, she found the perfect field in portrait miniatures.”

Marion Winter, Editor

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