Micromosaics – Valuations, History & Guide

Micromosaics

No other object encapsulates the skill and innovation in the arts of the late 18th and early 19th century like micromosaics.  The written word cannot do justice to these miniature masterpieces and those who have had the pleasure of examining these often very valuable works of art seldom forget their impact.

We have specialist knowledge about micromosaics and have helped clients sell their own micromosaics through both auctions and private sales.

If you have a micromosaic and would like to sell it or simply know what it is worth please get in touch.  We can advise the value of your micromosaic and help you sell it.

Micromosaics

No other object encapsulates the skill and innovation in the arts of the late 18th and early 19th century like micromosaics.  The written word cannot do justice to these miniature masterpieces and those who have had the pleasure of examining these often very valuable works of art seldom forget their impact.

We have specialist knowledge about micromosaics and have helped clients sell their own micromosaics through both auctions and private sales.

If you have a micromosaic and would like to sell it or simply know what it is worth please get in touch.  We can advise the value of your micromosaic and help you sell it.

Mosaic in Ancient History

Mosaics have a long history, starting in Mesopotamia circa 3000BC as simple clusters of pebble mosaics which bore little semblance to the mosaics we know and recognise today.  Mosaic art really began to flourish in the Byzantine Empire from the 6th to the 15th centuries when small tiles (tesserae) made from marble, glass and stone were first used to create spectacular decoration on walls.  It was not long until they were promoted to adorn floors and ceilings in both religious and secular settings.

The technique most associated with mosaics is ‘opus tessellatum’, a Latin name for use of tesserae 4mm or larger in size.  These mosaics were laid directly on site and were used to cover large areas.  The technique more closely associated with Micromosaics however is that of ‘opus vermiculatum’, where tesserae less than 4mm were laid down on panels and then transported and fitted into the desired site.  The results are much more subtle with a greater degree of detail.

A 4th century AD Roman moscaic - although not quite a micromosaic by today's standards the 4mm tesserae are small for the time.
A 4th century AD Roman moscaic – although not quite a micromosaic by today’s standards the 4mm tesserae are small for the time.

Mosaic in Ancient History

Mosaics have a long history, starting in Mesopotamia circa 3000BC as simple clusters of pebble mosaics which bore little semblance to the mosaics we know and recognise today.  Mosaic art really began to flourish in the Byzantine Empire from the 6th to the 15th centuries when small tiles (tesserae) made from marble, glass and stone were first used to create spectacular decoration on walls.  It was not long until they were promoted to adorn floors and ceilings in both religious and secular settings.

The technique most associated with mosaics is ‘opus tessellatum’, a Latin name for use of tesserae 4mm or larger in size.  These mosaics were laid directly on site and were used to cover large areas.  The technique more closely associated with Micromosaics however is that of ‘opus vermiculatum’, where tesserae less than 4mm were laid down on panels and then transported and fitted into the desired site.  The results are much more subtle with a greater degree of detail.

A 4th century AD Roman moscaic - although not quite a micromosaic by today's standards the 4mm tesserae are small for the time.
A 4th century AD Roman moscaic – although not quite a micromosaic by today’s standards the 4mm tesserae are small for the time.
In this close up you can see how many different shades of pink and white are used to make very smooth and realistic gradients.
In this close up you can see how many different shades of pink and white are used to make very smooth and realistic gradients.

How are micromosaics made?

Firstly it useful to understand how micromosaics were constructed.  A receptacle was prepared, quite often a shallow copper tray was used, but carved out Belgian black slate and black glass receptacles are also found.  A very slow drying cement was placed on the bottom and the painstaking process of inserting the tiny tesserae with tweezers began.  Once complete any gaps would quite often be filled with an appropriately coloured wax, although this has often become discoloured or disappeared.  For the very best micromosaics the surface was then polished smooth, and it was this process that often added a considerable cost.  The plaques would then be set onto whatever object was desired, with the most common forms being snuffboxes, jewellery, tables and plaques, although they were could be mounted onto, or into, almost any object the owner wanted.

How are micromosaics made?

Firstly it useful to understand how micromosaics were constructed.  A receptacle was prepared, quite often a shallow copper tray was used, but carved out Belgian black slate and black glass receptacles are also found.  A very slow drying cement was placed on the bottom and the painstaking process of inserting the tiny tesserae with tweezers began.  Once complete any gaps would quite often be filled with an appropriately coloured wax, although this has often become discoloured or disappeared.  For the very best micromosaics the surface was then polished smooth, and it was this process that often added a considerable cost.  The plaques would then be set onto whatever object was desired, with the most common forms being snuffboxes, jewellery, tables and plaques, although they were could be mounted onto, or into, almost any object the owner wanted.

In this close up you can see how many different shades of pink and white are used to make very smooth and realistic gradients.
In this close up you can see how many different shades of pink and white are used to make very smooth and realistic gradients.

Micromosaics pre 1750

Mosaics have a long association with churches where they provided a decorative and hard wearing alternative to frescos and panels.  The mosaic craftsmen’s skill in reproducing a painterly style was so great that many people still mistake the mosaic altarpieces at churches all over Europe as paintings, and there can be no greater example of this than the mosaic decoration of the side chapels and altarpieces at St Peter’s in Rome. 

Founded in 1578, the Studio del Mosaico della Fabbrica della Basilica di S Pietro (later known as Vatican Mosaic Workshop) initially decorated the side chapels using cartoons provided by artists such as Cavalier d’Arpino and Carlo Maratta.  The technique was taught by an unknown craftsman who was brought to the Vatican from St Mark’s in Venice.  Venice was not only the centre of mosaic production at that time, but also the source for the new translucent glass tesserae that were being used.

Owing to the vast scale of the Basilica, clouds of humidity were often said to have formed in the interior, and by 1626 dampness was causing the paintings and frescos to decompose.  The chosen technique to reproduce the original paintings was mosaic, and in 1627 the first mosaic altarpiece, Saint Michael the Archangel after Cavalier d’Arpino, was commissioned.  Almost a century later and the decision was made to replicate all of the paintings in St Peter’s in mosaic.

By the middle of the 18th century most of the mosaic replicas had been completed and the mosaicists faced unemployment, so as a way to supplement their income they were allowed to work independently, more often specialising in micromosaics.

Another details showing the very fine tesserae that are used in micromosaics.  Their linear application in the sky is a good indication of an early micromosaic.
Another details showing the very fine tesserae that are used in micromosaics. Their linear application in the sky is a good indication of an early micromosaic.
A brooch by the 19th century jewellers Castellani, from the MET Museum.
A brooch by the 19th century jewellers Castellani, from the MET Museum.

Micromosaics pre 1750

Mosaics have a long association with churches where they provided a decorative and hard wearing alternative to frescos and panels.  The mosaic craftsmen’s skill in reproducing a painterly style was so great that many people still mistake the mosaic altarpieces at churches all over Europe as paintings, and there can be no greater example of this than the mosaic decoration of the side chapels and altarpieces at St Peter’s in Rome. 

Founded in 1578, the Studio del Mosaico della Fabbrica della Basilica di S Pietro (later known as Vatican Mosaic Workshop) initially decorated the side chapels using cartoons provided by artists such as Cavalier d’Arpino and Carlo Maratta.  The technique was taught by an unknown craftsman who was brought to the Vatican from St Mark’s in Venice.  Venice was not only the centre of mosaic production at that time, but also the source for the new translucent glass tesserae that were being used.

Owing to the vast scale of the Basilica, clouds of humidity were often said to have formed in the interior, and by 1626 dampness was causing the paintings and frescos to decompose.  The chosen technique to reproduce the original paintings was mosaic, and in 1627 the first mosaic altarpiece, Saint Michael the Archangel after Cavalier d’Arpino, was commissioned.  Almost a century later and the decision was made to replicate all of the paintings in St Peter’s in mosaic.

By the middle of the 18th century most of the mosaic replicas had been completed and the mosaicists faced unemployment, so as a way to supplement their income they were allowed to work independently, more often specialising in micromosaics.

Another details showing the very fine tesserae that are used in micromosaics.  Their linear application in the sky is a good indication of an early micromosaic.
Another details showing the very fine tesserae that are used in micromosaics. Their linear application in the sky is a good indication of an early micromosaic.
Micromosaic value

Giacomo Raffaelli Micromosaics and the Late 18th Century

Giacomo Raffaelli (1753-1836) is widely credited with the developments of micromosaics and it what Raffaelli who had the first exhibition of micromosaic art at his studio in Rome in 1775.  These early micromosaics tend to be more limited in colour and the tesserae are arranged in regular parallel rows or follow the outline of the figure. 

The micromosaic illustrated here is an example of Raffaelli’s technique and shows the linear use of the tesserae in the background.

Giacomo Raffaelli Micromosaics and the Late 18th Century

Giacomo Raffaelli (1753-1836) is widely credited with the developments of micromosaics and it what Raffaelli who had the first exhibition of micromosaic art at his studio in Rome in 1775.  These early micromosaics tend to be more limited in colour and the tesserae are arranged in regular parallel rows or follow the outline of the figure. 

The micromosaic illustrated here is an example of Raffaelli’s technique and shows the linear use of the tesserae in the background.

Micromosaic value

Neo-Classicism and The Grand Tour Micromosaics 

Another example of Raffaeilli’s work can be seen here, The Capitoline Doves or Pliny’s Doves, a micromosaic plaque set onto a gold box.  This work draws the three events without which the art of micromosaics would not have been able to flourish.

The first was the Grand Tour, which not only completed an enlightened Englishman’s education, but also served as an opportunity to purchase new and exotic works of art, with micromosaics being highly fashionable both for wealthy tourists and for use as diplomatic gifts.  Patronage by the great and the good perpetuated the art of the micromosaicist and as a result new developments continued to be made into the 19th century.

Second was the rise of Neo Classicism which followed the rediscovery of Herculaneum and Pompeii in 1738 and 1748.  It was only natural that the ancient art of mosaics, presented in a new and sophisticated form, depicting views of the ancient world, would have widespread appeal.

Finally, the discovery of a mosaic in 1737 at Hadrian’s Villa (at first thought to be from the second century BC) reignited the imaginations of the 18th century mosaicists.  The work depicted four doves around a bowl and was very finely executed with around 160 tesserae per square inch.  Raffaeilli’s version of Pliny’s Doves shows the skill with which he worked and the tesserae not only much smaller, but also much greater in number.

A version of Raffaeilli's micromosaic of The Capitoline Doves or Pliny's Dives.  This box is in the MET Museum although other copies are known.
A version of Raffaeilli’s micromosaic of The Capitoline Doves or Pliny’s Dives. This box is in the MET Museum although other copies are known.
A typical view of the Forum in Rome - a very typical Neo-Classical scene.  A plaque of this size and quality is worth over £100,000.
A typical view of the Forum in Rome – a very typical Neo-Classical scene. A plaque of this size and quality is worth over £100,000.

Neo-Classicism and The Grand Tour Micromosaics

Another example of Raffaeilli’s work can be seen here, The Capitoline Doves or Pliny’s Doves, a micromosaic plaque set onto a gold box.  This work draws the three events without which the art of micromosaics would not have been able to flourish.

The first was the Grand Tour, which not only completed an enlightened Englishman’s education, but also served as an opportunity to purchase new and exotic works of art, with micromosaics being highly fashionable both for wealthy tourists and for use as diplomatic gifts.  Patronage by the great and the good perpetuated the art of the micromosaicist and as a result new developments continued to be made into the 19th century.

Second was the rise of Neo Classicism which followed the rediscovery of Herculaneum and Pompeii in 1738 and 1748.  It was only natural that the ancient art of mosaics, presented in a new and sophisticated form, depicting views of the ancient world, would have widespread appeal.

Finally, the discovery of a mosaic in 1737 at Hadrian’s Villa (at first thought to be from the second century BC) reignited the imaginations of the 18th century mosaicists.  The work depicted four doves around a bowl and was very finely executed with around 160 tesserae per square inch.  Raffaeilli’s version of Pliny’s Doves shows the skill with which he worked and the tesserae not only much smaller, but also much greater in number.

A version of Raffaeilli's micromosaic of The Capitoline Doves or Pliny's Dives.  This box is in the MET Museum although other copies are known.
A version of Raffaeilli’s micromosaic of The Capitoline Doves or Pliny’s Dives. This box is in the MET Museum although other copies are known.
A superb example of a Grand Tour plaque - themes from Ancient Rome were very popular subjects during the 19th century.
A superb example of a Grand Tour plaque – themes from Ancient Rome were very popular subjects during the 19th century.

The late 19th century micromosaics

As was the case with many labour intensive and time consuming art forms, the production of micromosaics began to decline toward the end of the century, but this is not to say the art was dead.  The colossal plaques of the Roman Forum such as the one illustrated here can measure nearly 1m wide and are a true tour de force.  Originally produced for aristocrats, for diplomatic gifts or for Great Exhibitions, plaques like this would have taken many years to complete and still command substantial sums at auction.

The late 19th century micromosaics

As was the case with many labour intensive and time consuming art forms, the production of micromosaics began to decline toward the end of the century, but this is not to say the art was dead.  The colossal plaques of the Roman Forum such as the one illustrated here can measure nearly 1m wide and are a true tour de force.  Originally produced for aristocrats, for diplomatic gifts or for Great Exhibitions, plaques like this would have taken many years to complete and still command substantial sums at auction.

A superb example of a Grand Tour plaque - themes from Ancient Rome were very popular subjects during the 19th century.
A superb example of a Grand Tour plaque – themes from Ancient Rome were very popular subjects during the 19th century.

Dating Micromosaics

One of the best methods of dating is to look at the arrangement of the tesserae on the plaque.  When the art form began in the 18th century tesserae were laid in grid like parallel lines and will only make use of square or rectangular tesserae.  In the early part of the 19th century curved tesserae began to be used and the tesserae were set much less formally and were even set on angles.

Value of Microsaics

Given the labour intensive production process and the original aristocratic market for micromosaics, they are often very expensive.

  • The highest recorded price I can find reference to was the sale of an important table by Gioacchino Barberi which sold for £1,560,000 at Sotheby’s in 2011 and this represents the ceiling of the market to date. 
  • Large scale panels and tables by renowned mosaicists often achieve £100,000-£500,000.
  • Gold snuff boxes set with plaques by renowned mosaicists often sell for £30,000-£100,000 depending on the subject and execution.  Smaller plaques and less well executed tables also sell for similar figures.
  • Important suites of micromosaic set jewellery command up to £50,000, and the works of the Castellani can also command substantial five figure sums.
  • Further down the spectrum mounted silver boxes typically sell for £2,000 – £10,000, as do any number of Grand Tour objects, the price again being dependent on the size, reputation of the artist and execution of the mosaic.
  • Finally, small brooches and pendants can be purchased for £100-£1,000, although those at the lower end of the market are often very late and crudely constructed.

 

Dating Micromosaics

One of the best methods of dating is to look at the arrangement of the tesserae on the plaque.  When the art form began in the 18th century tesserae were laid in grid like parallel lines and will only make use of square or rectangular tesserae.  In the early part of the 19th century curved tesserae began to be used and the tesserae were set much less formally and were even set on angles.

Value of Microsaics

Given the labour intensive production process and the original aristocratic market for micromosaics, they are often very expensive.

  • The highest recorded price I can find reference to was the sale of an important table by Gioacchino Barberi which sold for £1,560,000 at Sotheby’s in 2011 and this represents the ceiling of the market to date. 
  • Large scale panels and tables by renowned mosaicists often achieve £100,000-£500,000.
  • Gold snuff boxes set with plaques by renowned mosaicists often sell for £30,000-£100,000 depending on the subject and execution.  Smaller plaques and less well executed tables also sell for similar figures.
  • Important suites of micromosaic set jewellery command up to £50,000, and the works of the Castellani can also command substantial five figure sums.
  • Further down the spectrum mounted silver boxes typically sell for £2,000 – £10,000, as do any number of Grand Tour objects, the price again being dependent on the size, reputation of the artist and execution of the mosaic.
  • Finally, small brooches and pendants can be purchased for £100-£1,000, although those at the lower end of the market are often very late and crudely constructed.

 

FREE MICROMOSAIC VALUATIONS

Micromosaic Valuations

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Online Valuation Form

Are you looking for a valuation of your micromosaic? If so then we can help.

Email details about your item to mark@marklittler.com or call us on 01270 440357

You can also click to send us a text

Alternatively, use the form to send us information about your item and we will reply with a valuation.

Online Valuation Form