Portrait miniatures in the New Republic

Google the name “Elle Shushan” and you turn up a Broadway producer, an antiques dealer, and one of Cher’s former agents. In 2002 when the New Yorker ran an article about a gathering of Cher’s former associates, Elle Shushan recalls that she was at the Winter Antiques Show plying her trade as the preeminent American dealer in portrait miniatures. “People kept coming up to me saying, ‘There’s someone out there with your name,’” she says. What is funny about this is that Shushan is all of the Elle Shushans on Google—and Google doesn’t know the half of it.

The daughter of a well-connected and colorful New Orleans family, Shushan was raised in the city’s Uptown neighborhood, and is still very much of it—she enjoys serving visitors her syrupy “Café du Monde café au lait.” But after going north to college, a love for theater drew her to New York. In 1976 she joined the William Morris Agency and was sent to Los Angeles to run their theater department.

In Los Angeles she found an apartment in “one of those strange Mexican Gothic places,” she says, which suited her perfectly: “I’m creepy,” she insists, citing her love of memento mori and “little Gothic chairs.” Today, Shushan lives in Philadelphia, in an apartment hung with her palm-sized portrait miniatures. Their subjects’ candid expressions glow with a ghostly intimacy, an effect deepened in the apartment by a small mob of worn tombstones arranged in a corner.

Toward the end of her tenure in Los Angeles, in 1980, Shushan bought her first miniature after reading Prince Jack, about Jack the Ripper. She began to devour history. “I bought miniatures to cement my learning,” she says. Collecting was not new to her—as a teenager she had bought Chinese export porcelain; nor were portrait miniatures—her great uncle and cousin, Harry Latter and Shirley Schlesinger, had assembled a collection now at the New Orleans Museum of Art. And she was still in show business. Returning to New York, she worked for CBS and in 1985 mounted Boys of Winter, a play about Vietnam starring Matt Dillon and Wesley Snipes.

But in New York she had a mentor. On weekends she worked for the dealer Ed Sheppard, from whom she bought her first pieces. She sold a miniature on her own in the late 1980s, but her apprenticeship only came to an end in 1997, when she went into business for herself.

Shushan is much in demand. She spends almost as much time advising museums and other institutions as private clients. The portrait miniature market is split into two theaters, the European, with royal family trees billowing with plumage and white wigs, and American portraits, “my cross-eyed little stick figures,” as Shushan describes them, mocking European disdain for work done on this side of the Atlantic. The record price for a portrait miniature, $1.2 million, is considered an anomaly; the high end more routinely hangs in the upper five figures. One collector‘s whim can have a deep effect on prices, which inhibits speculation.

Shushan urges clients to buy a portrait miniature as she does, “prepared to spend the rest of my life with it.” In her apartment a recent arrival, a British noblewoman, smiles benignly from the mantel. “I’ll know everything about her before I sell her,” says Shushan, who is less the lady’s owner than an advocate, a friend who loves her look, and keeps an eye on her commercial prospects—in fact, very like an agent. By Paul O’Donnell

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by Émile Jacques Ruhlmann (1879-1933), 1926. Macassar ebony, amaranth, and ivory. Metropolitan Museum of Art. By Cynthia Drayton

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