Tips of the Trade
Gazing Into Lovers' Eyes
Brush strokes can identify artists' work.
Larger pieces can be expensive.
Where values climb, fakes follow.
In the late 1700s, while his father George III was losing the Revolutionary War in America, George IV of England was losing his heart to a commoner. The young prince's lover gave him a locket with a miniature painting of her eye; her anonymity was preserved while eye contact was maintained. The idea caught on and, for about 30 years, Georgian miniatures remain one of the rarer examples of antique jewelry. Today these miniatures are often called "lover's eyes," a term that antiques dealer Edith Weber, mother to Barry Weber, president of Edith Weber & Associates of New York City and an ANTIQUES ROADSHOW appraiser, coined 30 years ago.
More on these Georgian miniatures, one of the rarer examples of antique jewelry
The images were painted by miniaturists, portrait painters who specialized in small, detailed images. In this case they focused on only the eye, often represented with eyebrow and lashes. A wisp of hair, the suggestion of sideburn or the bridge of a nose would hint at the owner's identity but never reveal it. A border of clouds frequently encircled the image, further accentuating the mystery surrounding it.
Such portraits appeared between the 1790s and 1820s in the courts and affluent households of England, Russia, France and even, quite rarely, America. In all, Weber estimates that fewer than a thousand were produced.
Eventually, not just lovers but beloved family members were portrayed. One bracelet, for instance, is composed of four eyes, each belonging to a member of one family and bearing the initials of each individual. Mourning pieces contained the eye of a departed loved one, sometimes set in a frame of pearls which symbolized tears.
Although most eyes are unidentifiable, there is one diamond-studded example marked with an Imperial Crown and initials "J.B." This was traced back to Joseph Bonaparte, Napoleon's ne'er-do-well brother who was once the Emperor of Spain.
Value lies in the eyes of the beholder
All "lover's eyes" miniatures are valuable. In the 18th century, if you couldn't afford ivory, you could commission less expensive paintings on vellum, a paper thicker than parchment. Today, however, paper miniatures are no less valuable than their ivory counterparts. Rings are often worth more than broaches because they are rarer. Larger pieces can be extraordinarily costly. Fine detail in the eye also increases value.
"American pieces are spectacularly rare," notes Weber, who has seen one jewel-encrusted example worth $20,000. Good documentation is needed to prove the origin of the jewelry. "It's not enough to say that it's been in your family for generations," he explains.
"Lover's eyes" require some special care. The glass cover over each miniature protects it from more than the oils and dirt of centuries; your entire investment can wash away if exposed to water as Georgian miniatures were painted in watercolor.
Born in intrigue, this jewelry can still be dangerous—to collect. "Extreme caution should be used when entering into this rare field of collecting," advises Weber. "Few pieces cost less than $1,000, and where values climb, fakes follow."
The example shown here is a cheap imitation using a computer image copied from a book. The miniature contains pixels rather than brush strokes. Most fakes are more subtle. Be wary of murky colors that use dark sepia tones. These show a heavy-handed effort to falsify age. On the other hand, some fakes are too colorful and should raise an eyebrow. Finally, remember that an antique frame doesn't add authenticity to the painting. Contemporary collectors continue to be intrigued by these "lover's eyes." The identity of the subject remains a mystery, but their beauty and novelty are no secret.
Dennis Gaffney is a freelance writer in Albany, New York. He has been a regular contributor to ANTIQUES ROADSHOW Online since 1998.