After a bidding battle, it was hammered down at $750,000 (£606,225) or $945,000 including buyer’s premium – nearly 19 times its low estimate and the top lot of the sale.
Painted by an unknown artist in the US c.1820, the intriguing image of racial harmony was estimated at $50,000-100,000 at Christie’s Important Americana sale in New York on January 20 and was contested by bidders from the US and overseas.
Mould said: “Although, as yet, we don’t know the artist, nor the identity of the subjects, the relationship of equality is emphatically expressed.
“The constraints and social protocol in painted portraiture of the period make such palpable depiction of interracial attachment almost without precedent. The normal objectifications in the depiction of racial distinction have been set aside.”
Christie’s catalogue stated: “The pose and props cast the African American girl as the superior figure with both wearing coral necklaces, but additional bracelets and pendant earrings are seen on the African American girl only.” It speculates that, as the white girl holds a chapbook inscribed Cinderella, this “raises the possibility that in the absence of blood ties, the artist was nonetheless deliberately conveying sisterhood”.
Some of the brushstrokes are similar to those of the artist Charles Peale Polk (1767-1822) but Mould and his team intend to fully research the picture before planning to sell it to a museum.
It had previously been owned by John Judkin (1913-63), the English antiques dealer who had a life-long partnership with Dr Dallas Pratt (1914-94). The couple were the founders of the American Museum in Britain and lived in the UK and New York. After Judkin’s early death in 1963, all his property passed to Pratt and this portrait furnished their New York apartment prior to its sale at Sotheby’s in 1995.
Then, 28 years to the day before the Christie’s sale, it had also been the top lot of the sale, hammered down at $31,000 (or $35,650 with premium).
Mould compares the picture to the famous c.1770 portrait of Dido Belle (1761-1804) and her cousin Elizabeth Murray (now at Scone Palace, Scotland). Belle’s mother was a slave but her father, a naval officer, brought her to live with his uncle, William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield, and she grew up at Kenwood House, Hampstead, as an educated woman.
English School work
Another early portrait, seemingly depicting both a black and white woman as social equals, was sold at Trevanion Auctioneers in June 2021 (ATG No 2499).
The English School double portrait, c.1650, depicted the two women in fashionable dress with decorative patches to their faces. Sold for a hammer price of £220,000, it was temporarily barred from export in 2021 and currently Compton Verney is in the process of securing the £272,800 (sale price plus fees and VAT) to buy the portrait.