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Old And Sold Antiques Digest Article

The Smallest And The Largest Art Treasures

( Orginally published 1962 )



The lost art treasures of the world take many forms: huge giants of the sculptor's world, fine and delicate glass of the Venetian period, fine woods of antique furniture, magnificent tapestries. They come in every form under the sun, but probably one of the smallest items would be the miniature paintings made before the advent of the modern camera.

Today our photographic equipment records, with very little trouble and with absolute accuracy, whatever is placed in front of it, but in the days of yore only the artist could do this. Yet members of families wanted a record of their loved ones, and, huge paintings or wall portraits not always being practical, the miniature came into popularity.

The miniature became a well loved and common thing in the average home, and today these miniatures, or at least those by certain artists, are sought eagerly by collectors. The collecting of miniatures has, rightly, become almost a fad in America today, and the number of men and women collecting these small paintings is increasing every day; and, as their number increases, the competition for works by specific artists will become more profitable, so the treasure hunter who finds a rare miniature will be able almost to name his own price.

Many of these miniatures were made during the seventeen hun dreds in America, as they were extremely popular. Today no one knows how many of them are missing, or how many of them are hiding in that famous old trunk in your attic or in that box of odds and ends in the basement.

There are, however, certain artists whose works are more highly valued than just any early artist, and among these men is Charles Willson Peale, who is probably better remembered for his portrait of George Washington which today hangs in the National Gallery in Washington, D.C.

Peale was well known even in his own day, having commanded a company of soldiers during some of the most famous battles of the Revolutionary War. He painted many, many portraits, among them miniatures which rank, today, as choice items on the collector's list.

Another name to watch for is that of John Singleton Copley, whose works are today's museum pieces, his larger paintings being classed among the finest works of American art. But the treasure hunter has more than a good chance of finding a Copley miniature, since they were small and therefore easily lost or mislaid.

Also watch for the signatures of such men as Pelham, Trott, and Fraser. Any miniature by any of these men is a find for the treasure hunter.

From an earlier day, watch for the European miniatures of Holbein, Samuel Cooper, Smart, Robertson, and Ross. Lucas Cranach the Elder also did some miniatures which were exquisite then and are rare collectors' items today.

Also watch for miniatures which were made shortly before the French Revolution, for at that time the art of miniature painting in France, as in America, reached a height of popularity which has not been equaled since. From this period, look for the names of Mausson, Mosnier, and Hall, the latter having been such a magnificent painter of miniatures that he was nicknamed the "Van Dyke of the Miniature."

But there are other miniatures besides those, because miniatures have been a favorite in homes for many, many years. There are miniatures on ivory, canvas, wood, and metal. And all of them, if they are old enough, rare enough, and painted by great artists, have a value to the treasure hunter. Even eighteenth-century French vanity boxes were occasionally decorated with miniature paintings.,/P>

Sometimes miniatures were of other subjects than portraits, which is what we generally think of when discussing miniatures. There have been some which were landscapes, although they were fewer in number than the portrait miniatures. Still they are well worth watching for.

Some of the greatest and most famous artists in the world painted miniatures, and they belong in museums and collections. What a shame it would be if, perhaps, one of the finest examples of this almost lost art should remain in a dusty box in your attic, when with a little searching you might be able to give it back to the worldat the same time making money in the process.

Like petite works of art, these miniatures belie their size and can be placed, both in terms of beauty and of line, beside the greatest works of art. They are warm, magnificent examples of what great artists could do when they painted small items, as opposed to the great murals which they also executed. Though small, they can easily match the great murals in beauty if not in size.

There is, of course, no way of telling how many of these miniatures are lost, nor of telling where they might be. They could be anywhere, even spread all the way across America. In the pioneer days, the people would often take along their miniatures on their way west, when all their other belongings had to be left behind.

It would even be possible to find a miniature by one of the European masters such as Holbein or Cranach the Elder in a West Coast second-hand store, it having been brought across an ocean, a mountain range, and a prairie, in a day when only the smallest items were carried across the land of death and Indians.

Possible? Yes, very much so-for this is the treasure hunter's dream. And sometimes it comes true.

And then there are the giants!

For over a thousand years art lovers have spoken of and dreamed of the lost statue of Hermes by the Greek master Praxiteles. Somewhere in the mists of time, the statue had disap peared completely. Only whispers of its existence remained, whispers which told of a statue so beautiful that it was outstanding even in the day when it was first made, and this was in the century, 400 to 300 B.C., when Greek sculpture was going through one of its finest periods.

Pausanias, the Greek writer of the second century A.D., described the statue-for he saw it. He said that it was a marble statue of Hermes, magnificent in line and proportion. Hermes held on one arm the baby Dionysius, and in one hand he held a bunch of grapes. This is what we knew from his description, and this is probably all we would ever have known except for a group of German excavators who were working at Olympia in the year 1877.

These men accomplished what the art world had thought impossible. After a thousand years, they found the lost statue of Hermes. They found it as Pausanias had described it-almost. For time had done its work well. The right arm and the grapes which held it were missing. The left foot and the lower part of the legs were missing. Yet most of the statue was in good condition, a triumphant end to a treasure hunt that had lasted for over a thousand years.

But of the work of Praxiteles the statue of Hermes was the lesser prize, for his greatest work is still listed as missing. This is the statue of Aphrodite, which the ancient world acclaimed as Praxiteles' finest work.

We know it existed, because the Greek author Lucian saw the statue at Cnidus circa 150 B.C. He recorded the fact that he had seen it, and so we know it was there. As Pausanias recorded his visit to Hermes, so Lucian told of his visit to Aphrodite, and so we know they were there. But with Aphrodite's statue we have a further concrete clue not only to its existence but to what it looked like, for there was a coin struck during the ancient days which bore the form of Praxiteles' statue of Aphrodite.

If this Aphrodite could be found, the museums of the world would be more than eager for it, and thousands of art lovers the world over would make journeys to see it; much as in the day when the statue was first created, when the people made pilgrimages to it by the thousands. Day after day, the people visited this fabulous statue not only because it was Praxiteles' finest work but because the statue was at Cnidus, the town which was supposed to be especially favored by the goddess Aphrodite.

Certainly, this statue would be a find for any treasure hunter. The Hermes is thought to be the only authentic original work of Praxiteles in existence today, but Praxiteles created sixty other works of art, none of which have been located.

But of all his works, the Aphrodite is the one dreamed of, both by the museum curator and the treasure hunter.

Praxiteles, of course, was not the only Greek artist whose works are lost. Among the best known of the other masters whose works have never been found is Lysippus who lived during the time of Alexander the Great.

Lysippus was so well thought of and his works were held in such high esteem that Alexander would allow no other artist to make a statue of him, and one of these statues of Alexander, showing him with a lance in his hand, is missing. But this is only one statue; Lysippus created over one thousand five hundred works of art-yet not a one of his works remains.

His Zeus which was at Tarentum has disappeared; Opportunity, which was at the gates of a temple, has vanished; his gigantic statue of Hercules has been lost. What has happened to these and all the other numerous works he produced we do not know. There is some possibility, of course, that they may have been destroyed, but the probability is that at least some of them have survived.

We know that one of his statues was destroyed. This was the Heracles which was taken from Tarentum to Rome, then finally transported to Constantinople where it was preserved until the eleventh century, when it was melted down.

This may have happened to his other works; yet it is highly unlikely. Fifteen hundred works of art simply do not disappear! They may be lost for a while. Some of them may have been damaged. But somewhere the statues of Lysippus are waiting under the dust of centuries for the treasure hunter to find them.

It takes, of course, a great deal of time and effort to search for and locate such works as these, for they are the works of the very ancient past, a past which is so far away from us that we can only look back upon it with a mingled feeling of awe and respect.

But certainly the search for this type of treasure could be well worth the time and trouble. Old records must be searched; experts must be consulted; digging must be careful and accurate. If you dig for doubloons and the spades and shovels knock them around, no damage has been done, but the careless handling of digging equipment when searching for lost works of art can cause irreparable damage.

This all sounds, and is, very complicated and not the sort of thing for the average treasure hunter, but there is always the chance, the one-in-a-million chance, that you will find one of these treasures in the neighborhood second-hand store or in an old packing crate. Anywhere at all!