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Detectives on History's Case

The Potomack Company prepares inaugural auction.

He stands proudly, resting his right hand on his hip while his left grips the hilt of his sabre, using it for balance. Eight military medals adorn his coat; his face offers a quiet regality.

But who was he? More importantly, who painted him?

It took Elizabeth Wainstein, founder and president of The Potomack Company auctions and appraisals, and her team about three weeks of research to find out everything about the piece. After establishing his name (Marquis Marie Louis Raymond de Cambefort) and his artist (Felix Clement), the real work began — discovering its potential value at auction.

The frame is an antique bamboo. The painting is in good condition, relined in the back. The artist has only 90 known works, and the last portrait that sold was in 1984. Then there are the variables, like the fact that the painting had been passed down through an Arlington family.

The initial price estimate is low: between $5,000-$7,000. "We’re very fortunate to get it in at a low estimate. It encourages competition," said Wainstein. "It should bring much more than that."

This process plays out over and over again at The Potomack Company, a new auction group founded by a collection of experts in several antiquing fields. Potomack's auction gallery is located at 526 North Fayette St.; its retail space is at 277 South Washington St. It can be found on the Web at www.potomackcompany.com.

It takes its name from a venture George Washington established in 1785 to promote trade with the western frontier and beyond. According to the 2006 company's mission statement, it seeks to "promote regional and national trade in antiques, fine arts and estate properties."

The Potomack Company will offer retail sales, purchases of estates and live auctions — the first of which is scheduled for Saturday, Oct. 28 at 10 a.m.

The inaugural auction will feature a wide range of items from different estates. "We want to service the full estate — take the $50 item but also obviously handle the more expensive paintings and other items," said Wainstein. "A lot of times, with an estate, you don’t want to go in there and cherry pick."

WAINSTEIN HAS BEEN an antique dealer for 18 years, owning Brockett's Row Antiques in Alexandria. Her team of specialists at The Potomack Company tackle a wide range of styles. Anne Craner, paintings and drawings, is a former research associate at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; Matthew Sturtevant, furniture, was a former director of 19th century furniture at Christie's in New York; Ellen Jenkins, porcelain and pottery, was director of pottery at Christie's; Lynn Loube, jewlery, is a master gemologist and jewelry historian; Frances McCord Krongard, sculpture and tapestries, is a former director of European works of art at Christie's; Michael Wendorf, rugs and carpets, is a rug scholar and appraiser; Osborne Phinizy Mackie, trusts and estates, is a former executive director of The Tudor Place Foundation.

The company specializes in estates, but will appraise single items as well. It takes property on consignment, and then takes a commission of the auction sale price.

"There’s no money up front, unless they ask us to buy the estate," said Wainstein. "That is a service we offer, but we prefer to take it on consignment because it’s better for the seller in the long run."

She said that having an auction house in Alexandria has its advantages.

"There’s a lot of very good property in the area."