The market for portrait miniatures, at rock bottom since a buoyant peak 10 years ago, shows signs of perking up. Bonhams sales in February and March each sold 97 per cent by lot. At Christie's South Kensington last month, a 1787 portrait of a young lady on ivory - with a crack down it - was fought over by several collectors before selling for pounds 6,325, more than 12 times its pre-sale estimate of pounds 400-pounds 600.
Damaged goods are the last to sell during a slump but they are selling now, and auctioneers are puzzled. About 80 per cent of buyers are private collectors. They are outbidding dealers in a market that is understocked and probably undervalued. The showing of the Queen's miniatures, from next month, will help to stoke up interest.
Take a look at that unnamed young lady on ivory. Has she not a fragile beauty, in her loose white dress decked with spring flowers and with her hair backcombed in a way that would turn heads at a modern disco? A secret raver, perhaps? The artist, Diana Hill, is not a big name. It was the sitter that bidders fell in love with.
It is looks that rule this market. Never mind the big-name artists - the prolific Richard Cosway (1740-1821) and George Engleheart (1752-1829): their ugly old men and sour-looking women can still be knocked down for a derisory pounds 400-pounds 600 or so at auction.
Collectors have long abandoned any pretence of political correctness: listen to the sexist and ageist language at a pre-sale view. Those miniature portraits, perhaps the only surviving record of what a Georgian or a Victorian looked like, should have immense sentimental appeal, but they are judged like horseflesh - which, indeed, some of them resemble.
"It's like real life", says Christie's miniatures specialist Dr Bodo Hofstetter: "You don't buy a work of art, you buy a person. I know it sounds weird, but it's not like buying flower pictures or landscapes. Who wants to buy a grumpy or unfriendly-looking character with whom they will have to live for the next 20 or 30 years?
"But look at this little girl, Mademoiselle de Courtenay, with her sad dark eyes staring straight at you - probably painted for her father to take to the front. She's not better painted than most and not even signed. But she's looking straight into your heart - and your wallet. They went crazy for her."
Attributed to Luc Sicardi (1746-1825), the portrait was estimated at pounds 2,000-pounds 3,000 in April's sale, in line with the artist's reputation, but fetched five times more: pounds 12,650.
On the same catalogue page: an ageing man in a blue coat by Jean-Baptiste- Jacques Augustin (1759-1832), esteemed chief miniature painter to Louis XVIII. It's among the best of his works, fully signed and dated - but it made only pounds 6,900. Mr Hofstetter says: "At least he has a smile and a colourful cravat - and he's looking straight at you."
That's another criterion. Averted gaze is a minus point. It is like the conniving by modern paparazzi to get more-saleable direct-gaze shots. "Look at me, Di", they shout.
One well-known collector I spoke to - anonymous, for fear of burglary - lamented: "I fell in love with an old man, beautifully painted by Sir William Ross [1794-1860]. I paid pounds 400 for him. That was six years ago. I'd be lucky to get pounds 600 now. Old women are even harder to get rid of. It's pretty ladies and men in red coats that people want."
The miniaturist James Scouler (1741-1812), she said, seems to have painted only ugly women. "I've come across only two pretty ones of his." Scouler's prices are a good example of how the market has fallen in ten years. An unnamed cavalry officer in red by Scouler sold for pounds 977 at Christie's South Kensington last month. Back in 1988 the same miniature fetched pounds 1,540.
Now's the time to get your eye in. Why did the young lady with gold sash under her corsage - French School, circa 1815 - estimated at pounds 200-pounds 300 at Christie's South Kensington last month, sell for pounds 920, over three times the estimate? Because of her prominent bust, of course.
And why did Mrs Elliott, by the renowned Cosway, in the same sale, sell for only pounds 287 (est pounds 250-pounds 350). Well, just look at her. She's thin as a rake. And probably mean, too. So it is puzzling why a purse-lipped malevolent- looking portrait of Francis Owen, by the second-rank Richard Crosse (1742- 1810), should have been given pride of place on the cover of Christie's April sale.
In the event, the cover picture did him more good than he did for the cover: he sold for a double-estimate pounds 16,100. And, oddly enough, his pride of place was a backhanded result of the same old beauty contest. Since withdrawing from Geneva, Christie's alternates European and English miniatures as its cover picture. The only English alternative to Crosse's portrait would have been one by Samuel Cooper (1609-1672) of Lady Marsham. She was probably delightfully good-natured. But what a hooter.
The Queen's miniatures go on show at the Queen's Gallery, Buckingham Palace, 23 July - 5 October. Forthcoming auctions: major beauty contest at Phillips, 8 July (11am) including portrait of the Dashwood children by William Wood (1769-1810), est pounds 2,000-pounds 3,000. Christie's 14 October (2.30pm). Christie's South Kensington 8 July (10.30am). Bonhams 25 June (2pm). Sotheby's: provisionally 6 November.