NEW YORK CITY – A half-length, approximately two-inch-tall portrait of George Washington sold to an anonymous phone bidder for $1,216,000 at Christie’s Rockefeller Center on January 19. The event was among several US auctions offering Presidential material before the January 20 inauguration of George W. Bush.
“George Washington, the first man to be elected President under our Constitution, is still the first in the hearts and minds of Americans,” said John Hays, international director of Christie’s and the sale’s auctioneer. Hays noted that private collectors, museums and historical institutions competed for the lot, “resulting in a record price for any painting per square inch.”
Painted on October 3, 1789, for Martha Washington by Irish-born artist John Ramage (circa 1748-1802), the most fashionable portrait miniaturist in New York City at the time, this is the first portrait painted of Washington following his inauguration as the first President of the newly formed United States of America.
Washington recorded the event in his diary: “Sat for Mr. Rammage (sic) near two hours to-day, who was drawing a miniature picture of me for Mrs. Washington.”
The miniature portrays Washington in full dress, wearing his blue and buff officer’s uniform and the ribbon of the Order of the Cincinnati, the honorific organization founded by his officers after the war. The miniature’s gold case, also produced by Ramage, encloses a lock of Washington’s plaited hair and is decorated with his initials.
Hays told the Associated Press the auction house was confident that the hair, which has been encased under glass in the locket for more than 200 years, belonged to Washington, although he acknowledged the hair had not been DNA tested.
According to AP, the back of the locket is also inscribed with the names of several of Washington’s descendants, who owned the piece for nearly 120 years, and the name of Lucy Wharton Drexel, who bought the locket in a private sale in 1907.The rdf_Description remained in Drexel’s family until 1988, when Christie’s sold the piece in London to the Alexander Gallery of New York, which sold it the following year to Eddy G. Nicholson of New Hampshire, a collector of American art. Hays said Nicholson, whose first acquisition was a portrait of Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry, would like to see the rdf_Description stay in the United States.
A full review of this sale will appear in an upcoming issue of Antiques and The Arts Weekly.