Currently in prepartion: Four Hundred Years of American Portraits, with Jayne Merkel. A comprehensive analysis of the psychology, concept, and history of portrait painting in America.
Contributor of an article on American Portraiture to the forthcoming revised edition of All About Appraising: A Source Book of Professional Methodology for Appraisers, edited by Helaine Fendelman.
Art & Auction Magazine, August, 2006
"The Investment Issue" under "Trendspotting: Art & Auction chooses 10 Collecting Areas to Watch" p. 89,
"In a recent talk to collectors, Theodore Stebbins, a curator at Harvard University’s Fogg Art Museum, singled out 18th and 19th-century portraiture as an inexpensive and potentially good investment. Then he added, I've been saying that for 40 years.' Now, however, may actually be the time to buy. At Christie's on May 25, a William Merritt Chase portrait of a bearded man holding a dog sold for $114,000, against an estimate of $60,000 to $80,000, which Stebbins takes as a sign that, 'maybe someone is listening.'
Portraits by American painters are still available at very reasonable prices. Even early Colonial examples and those by such well-known artists as Thomas Sully and Rembrandt Peale rarely reach six figures. William Vareika, a dealer in Newport, Rhode Island, is asking $45,000 for a 1752 portrait of a little girl with flowers in her hair by Joseph Blackburn—Boston's leading portrait painter until John Singleton Copley came along—and $75,000 for an 1815 Gilbert Stuart portrait of a Boston attorney. 'When a Norman Rockwell costs $9.2 million,' says Vareika, referring to the sale of Homecoming Marine at Sotheby's in May, 'that seems pretty exceptional.'
The market's coolness to portraits probably stems from what dealer Anne Moore of Ancestor Image in Brooklyn, New York, calls the 'dead relative' factor. 'Some people don't like looking at other people's ancestors,' explains Moore, who sells only portraits. But lately, she says, with other material drying up, collectors are becoming aware of the charms of the genre, which can be more accessible than landscapes or still lifes. Plus, they are plentiful. 'In the early 19th century, portraiture was wildly popular,' says Moore, who has examples priced from $1,500 to $20,000. 'Painters traveled all over the Northeast and the coastal South; virtually every middle-class family had their portraits hanging in the parlor.'
What makes a good portrait? 'If the character of the sitter comes through,' says Moore. The more famous the sitter, the higher the price. A portrait of the Marquis de Lafayette by Samuel F.B. Morse sold for $1.4 million, almost triple its high estimate, at Sotheby's New York in November, but portraits by well-known artists that don't feature a president or general typically go for $20,000 to $50,000, according to Peter Rathbone, Sotheby's American paintings expert. 'Even a Gilbert Stuart or a John Singer Sargent won't bring anything commensurate with its importance' historically or artistically, he says. 'Portraits are an area where you can get the best quality for the least money. There's no question that there's opportunity there."