Small portrait may fetch a pretty penny

By Terry Maurer, What's It WorthSeptember 8, 2013 

San Francisco almost always has been a city of conspicuous wealth.

Founded in 1776 as a humble mission, it roared into prosperity with the California Gold Rush of 1849 -- and never looked back. Some of America's most prestigious retail firms call this city home.

In today's What's It Worth? we answer a reader's inquiry about a miniature portrait that relates to the affluence of the "Paris of the West."

Q. This little portrait is 4 inches high and 3 inches wide. It is oil paint on convex porcelain (I think it is porcelain). When purchased at a flea market in Quartzite, Ariz., several years ago, it was in a very dirty frame.

Around the edge is the lettering "K. Chandler Thompson S.F. 1895." There is an old label on the back of the frame for a shop in Riverside, Calif. Taking it out of the frame, I was delighted to find it was a real oil portrait -- not a print -- but have not found any history.

Any information that you may be able to provide will be greatly appreciated -- Phyllis in Stanfield, Ore.

A. If you desire to be an artist, but not a "starving artist," it helps to have adequate funds. Such was the financial case of the young Kate Chandler Thompson.

Born in San Francisco in 1870, she was the daughter of financially successful and astute businessman Lucius Thompson. Her dad had been a partner with Shreve & Co., the city's preeminent jeweler and silversmith.

When Kate was born, Thompson had left Shreve to become a partner with Vanderslice Jewelers, the "other" big name in San Francisco.

A watchmaker and jeweler, he held several design patents, including one for the famous "Gargoyle" pattern of sterling silver flatware.

With the family doing well, money was no problem for Kate, who started her art studies as a youngster in the 1880s.

By the time this miniature was painted -- 1895 -- she was a 25-year-old aspiring artist, a member of the San Francisco Art Association and living independently in her apartment in the Mission District.

She had at least six paintings at the association's 1895 exhibit and later in the year displayed works at the important Industrial Exhibition at Mechanic's Hall. In both shows, her work hung in the same galleries as painters including William Keith and other leaders of the California artists' community.

Just before the outbreak of World War I, she moved to Paris and opened a studio. While there, Thompson also helped managed a bureau for the reception of war refugees. After the Armistice, she moved to London, where she spend most of the rest of her life.

Many people think of her as a British artist and some galleries list her name as Kate Chandler-Thomson. She, herself, appears to have sometimes signed as Thomson.

She became well-known in Britain for her florals, portraits and scenes of Europe's great cities. Her solo exhibition in London in 1932 was a smashing success and resulted in a sale to Queen Mary. Thompson was a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts and a member and vice president of the Royal Society of Miniature Painters.

Thompson lived in London through all of the years of World War II, survived the bombings and returned to California in 1946. She died two years later at the age of 78.

This little portrait is an early example of Thompson's work and the only example of her American production our research uncovered. It is also the only one of her miniature paintings we found. Although she must have done hundreds of miniatures, none appear to have turned up at auction.

Valuing such an item is tricky, as there are no direct comparables. What we did find were several watercolors and pen and ink drawings. They have sold at auction here and in Britain for anywhere from $150 to $200.

This charming miniature of a beautiful girl falls entirely into another category. It seems to be a rare example of her American work; done by the artist at an early age.

A fairly wide-ranging auction estimate is appropriate in these circumstances. We think it would bring between $500 and $1,000 at a well-advertised sale in the United States and might sell for more in London.

- Terry Maurer, Tri-Cities personal property appraiser, is a member of the Certified Appraisers Guild of America. For possible use in a future column, direct questions on your antiques and collectibles to What's It Worth? by email to tchwhatsitworth@gmail.com.

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