The word miniature comes from a Latin word, but not the one for “little"; it comes from the word for “red lead ink.” In the Middle Ages, a miniator was a person who drew fine-grained pictures, often with an overflow of scarlet, in the margins of illuminated manuscripts. After the printing press arrived, miniators survived only by switching to something entirely new: painting “miniature” portraits for nobles. The typical size was an oval about three inches high, and from it came the English usage of the word.
Miniatures reflect a particular style, as much as any genre in painting can, in that razor-sharp clarity was the standard from the sixteenth century to the nineteenth. The heyday of the miniature was from 1650 to 1860. After that, people didn’t want to sit still for four or five days letting a miniaturist see behind their eyes, not when they could stand still for a few moments with a photographer.
The common opinion is that miniatures painted on ivory are intrinsically superior to others. However, miniatures on vellum, which are usually older, and ones on porcelain or made of enamel on copper are likely to be just as valuable and are often in better condition.
Miniatures of popular leaders were turned out in quantity, but they weren’t painted from life and don’t offer the sense of a historical moment. Napoleon miniatures are especially common. Prices go from $100 to $300.
UNKNOWNS: Unsigned miniatures of anonymous sitters can be exquisite, depending on the spirit captured and the fineness of the brushwork. High-quality, unattributed portraits range from $500 to $1,500.
JEWELRY: Brooches, rings, and bracelets inset with a coin-sized miniature were rarely the work of a serious artist. They were sometimes produced as mourning jewelry. The price usually depends as much on the surrounding jewelry as on the artwork, but good examples, set in gold, can be found for less than $400.
HISTORICAL FIGURES: Miniatures painted from life of anyone known to the history books start at about $10,000. A miniature of Adm. Horatio Nelson sold for $65,000 last year. A 21/8inch portrait of George Washington brought $1.2 million in January, the highest price per square inch ever paid for a piece of art.
NAME ARTISTS: The work of known artists is of highest interest to most collectors ($5,000-$15,000). Painters famous for their full-sized work, from Holbein to Goya to Copley, were sometimes attracted by the challenge of the miniature. Prices are commensurate with the rest of their work.
EYE MINIATURES: That the eyes are the windows to the soul was ratified in the early nineteenth-century fad for miniatures of only the sitter’s eyes, or eye in the singular ($1,000-$4,000).