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What's It Worth?

Mini-Portrait Is Big on Price and History

May 13, 2000|KATHY BRYANT | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

WHAT IS IT?

This is a 2 1/2-inch-by-3 1/2-inch miniature watercolor portrait of Sarah Bartlett, a granddaughter of Josiah Bartlett, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. On the backing, the artist has signed his name: Rufus Porter. The date of the portrait on the back states 1825.

WHAT'S ITS HISTORY?

"Rufus Porter is, in the best Yankee tradition, one of the incredible characters in American history," says Nancy Druckman, senior vice president and director of the American folk-art department at Sotheby's. "He was a real entrepreneur who did miniature watercolors, as well as highly prized wall murals that are still in houses in New England."

Porter was born in 1792, while George Washington was president, and lived through 21 other presidencies. He started as a portraitist before 1820 with no formal art training. He was one of the first artists to work as a portraitist in America, nearly 50 years before the word "portraitist" entered the English language. He was also an inventor (he sold the rights to his revolving rifle to Samuel Colt for $100) and the founder of Scientific American magazine.

WHAT'S THE LEGEND?

This miniature is a portrait of a distant relative of the owner, a Costa Mesa resident. "I'm in direct lineage to her," she says. "I only received it four years ago, however. Sarah Bartlett was 15 years old when Porter painted her. I think he tried to make her look older than she really was in this portrait. Unfortunately, she didn't live very long and died at 25 without ever marrying."

WHY IS IT POPULAR TODAY?

"These portraits are very interesting and sought after," Druckman says. "Porter is a well-known artist, and when you have someone who has kept one in the family all these years and knows the history, it's worth even more."

WHAT'S IT WORTH TODAY?

Depending on its condition, this miniature would bring $10,000 to $30,000, Druckman says.

WANT TO LEARN MORE?

There is a Web site dedicated to Rufus Porter: http://www.ourworld.compuserve.com/homepages/old_tools/rufus.htm. Books on American folk artists also have chapters on him.

To have an item considered for this column, send information, a photo of it and a phone number to: What's It Worth?, Home Design, The Times' Orange County edition, 1375 Sunflower Ave., Costa Mesa, CA 92626.

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