B.T. brought in a lovely and valuable oil painting to our Santa Barbara office for my opinion of value. If it is everything I think it is (an original), our reader will be retiring in a large home in Bermuda.
The painting is a beautifully framed portrait of a woman in an 18th century-style dress, sitting by a stylized stream. She pours an urn of water. It has an aged patina of grime and has what we term bloom — evidence of moisture damage. Faintly, we see a signature in the middle bottom, "JN." The piece is classical in composition, meaning that it has a triangular structure. It is in the style of an allegory, an 18th century tradition of picturing noble people in the guise of mythological figures. The lady is recognizable, and not too stylized to be a portrait. She has a distinctive hairstyle and jewels. The title on the back reads "Portrait de femme de qualitä en Source." Is it a copy, a painting after "JN"? Or an original? We'll discuss the value differences of those three possibilities.
The technique is masterful — the brushstrokes under the old patina are firm and the palette is not muddy. This was done by an experienced painter or a group (studio) of fine artisans. In the 18th century, paints were not in a tube and mixing paints was by no means for the amateur. The piece has an underglaze consistent with the style of canvas preparation in the 18th century; in other words, it has been prepped for the oil surface area with a gesso layer, in a lightly tinted hue. The frame is in the 18th century style called rococo, very flamboyant, and the gilding is hand-rubbed gold.
Researching the provenance, which is to say its history, B.T. tells me that the piece was given to him in repayment of a favor from a friend who purchased it from one of Santa Barbara's elegant older hotels. B.T. said that there was an old gallery label that had disappeared from reverse that attributed the painting to a French artist, Jean-Marc Nattier. Is this painting in his style or is it a 19th century copy in the manner of Nattier? This difference will greatly influence its value.
In looking at old auction records for international sales of Nattier, I found that he often signed with his initials in the mid-bottom, not in the corner, as typically found. The hotel that decommissioned the oil had purchased such oils more than 20 years ago by sending out a team of buyers throughout the States. Further complicating issues, there are two famous Nattiers, the younger Jean, 1685-1766, and the elder Jean, 1686-1726, possibly brothers. The elder painted mythological portraits, and the younger painted mainly the aristocracy of France. The younger lists — which means there are auction records — for up to $500,000. The elder is still pricey at figures of around $57,000. However, the records indicate that both men painted less desirable works that sell for around $6,000. However, these less desirable pieces seem to be a person's portrait, and are done as a bust; ours is a full figure in a setting with a distance background.
Where to go next? B.T. is now in the process of writing two museums that have Nattier pieces hanging: the Guildhall in London and the Denver Art Museum. In this case, we must find curators who have seen many Nattiers to authenticate the oil. Note that when B.T. writes the museum, he must ask their opinion of authenticity alone, bringing his findings back to me to ascertain value. I advised B.T. to find a book, written in 1925 in Paris, about the work, called "Nattier: Painter of the Court of Louis XV," which seems to be the definitive text on the painter even today.
Good things are worth researching. B.T. may need to have the painting cleaned and restretched to make the signature and quality evident. Yet if it is a copy, it may not be worth it since B.T. will pay $800 to have the job done well. It makes a difference in value to ascertain the degree of distance "from the artist's hand," a classical phrase that indicates that the farther away from the artist's brush, the lesser the value.
If the artist is Nattier the Younger, say $500,000; if it's Nattier the Elder, $50,000; in the manner of, or the school of, or the studio of, $5,000; and if a good reproduction, $500.
Certified appraiser for estates, inheritances and trusts.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart's column appears every week in the Salon & Style section of the Santa Barbara News Press. Email her your questions and high-resolution photos at ElizabethAppraisals @ gmail.com
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