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It’s auction season in antiques land, and the catalogs arrived at work smelling of money and expensive ink. Sotheby’s Folk Art and Americana sales offer some lovely pieces  at the end of this month.

From the Folk Art sale, Mr and Mrs (maybe) Fitzhugh Greene of (maybe) Newport, RI.

Lot 606 from Sotheby's sale N09106 "Esmerian"

Lot 606 from Sotheby’s sale N09106 “Esmerian”

Pretty sweet stuff, right? With an estimate of $400,000-600,000, chances are good that these aren’t headed for public display, so enjoy them now.

Mrs (maybe) Fitzhugh Greene

Mrs (maybe) Fitzhugh Greene

Mrs (maybe) Greene is a pretty fantastic painting, even if John Durand lacked the grace and skill of Copley or Feke. There is an airless quality to these paintings, though the details are fine and the contrast between the husband and wife in presentation is delightful. My favorite line of the catalogue entry is the final one: “When juxtaposed to the drab coloring of her husband’s portrait, Mrs. Greene can clearly be perceived as his adornment, a fertile beauty in the flush of womanhood.”

Egads, right? I suppose she could be, but I also suppose she could be a fine way to flaunt his wealth and success while he projects fiscal and mercantile stability and restraint. Without a solid link to actual people (and there isn’t) it could be that more is happening in these paintings than the woman serving as the man’s adornment. If you read the footnotes, you’ll see that the attribution to Newport is slim (it’s a story without a real source). If a Mr and Mrs Fitzhugh Greene lived in Newport in the 1760s and 1770s, they’re not buried in RI. They could be Loyalists who fled– auction catalogs are a fiction writers dream of inspiration– but so far, no solid evidence links these portraits to Rhode Island.

In terms of documenting a man and a woman of substance in 18th century America, or the material aspirations of those men and women, these portraits are interesting whether the clothes and jewelry Mrs (maybe) Greene is wearing are real or not. Because they could be fabrications.

Mr (maybe) Greene

Mr (maybe) Greene

Mr (maybe) Greene is firmly real. The frock coat, waistcoat and breeches are all presumably made of the same fine brown wool broadcloth, worn with a fine white linen shirt and stock adorned with lace. The buttons are interesting, and neither the zoom nor my nose pressed to the catalog page clearly reveal the pattern. They look like pretty standard issue death’s head buttons, except when one looks like it might be more like a dorset pattern, or the one that looks floral. These will be on display in New York if one has the chance, which I will not.

There are pendant portraits like these in museum collections that show a man and his sister. It is possible that what Sotheby’s is offering for sale is a pair like that: a man and his highly eligible sister, not a man and his wife.