Taking care When the Frame is an antique

Reprinted with permission Philadelphia Inquirer, On Antiques, February 1999
By Karla Klein Albertson


Expert care benefits valuable old frames

Most collectors understand a few framing basics. They would never surround an abstract painting with a heavy baroque molding or put the Old Masters under Plexiglas. Beyond that, however, knowledge often falters. That is when Eli Wilner, the uncrowned Frame King of America, steps in. Wilner has more than 3,000 carefully chosen antique frames in stock, gathered over 20 years of searching and researching. In the process, he has become an expert on this neglected topic. "The primary function of a frame is to aesthetically enhance the visual experience," he explains. "The frame should bring out the best qualities of the painting."

When Wilner advises clients on framing, he strives for a balance between historical accuracy and artistic suitability: "If you have a painting from 1897, I'd show you perhaps five frames from the 1890s to the early 1900s. However, the way that I'd arrive at those five frames is that - once I got the period correct - I'd work with aesthetic considerations."

"For example, if the frame has a leaf and berry motif, I wouldn't recommend that on a seascape," the dealer continues. "Then if the painting is very still, with few compositional elements, I would recommend a simple frame. Or if the painting has a lot of action, perhaps you'd want more elements in the frame to enhance what is going on in the painting. If there is a figure in a black coat in a painting, the most wonderful frame might he one that has some black in it that will pick up that key figure. Wilner now has on staff 25 artisans and administrators who provide a wide range of related services. Among the most important is the skillful restoration of antique frames, which are easily damaged by fire, theft, and climactic changes.

Beginning in the 19th century. ornate frames for fine art usually consisted of a wooden core covered with fragile applied elements made of a chalky composition material and then gilded overall. Heat and cold cause the wood of the frame to expand and contract, loosening decorative moldings. which may fall off during moving or storage. In the firm's workshop, skilled craftspeople restore missing sections of decorations and even expand old frames to new sizes by inserting invisible extensions.

Frame restoration is always more expensive than damage prevention, so Wilner advises, "Never store an antique frame in the basement - that's the worst damage because of the wetness. An attic is the next worst because or the dryness. Keep the frames where you keep your body. Try not to store them against each other. The best solution is to hang them up and enjoy them. And if you can't, then sell them." "No art to fit the frame? Never mind," says Wilner. "Many of my clients collect frames as objects - they just hang the frames empty on the wall. It was done in Europe for centuries; it's a new thing in America. I have a client in Florida who has 180 empty frames now - that's her collection."

If this approach is too avant-garde, insert a piece of mirror and admire a beautifully-framed reflection each morning. Daily frame care should be confined to a flick of the feather duster. Hard rubbing with a rag - or, even worse, vacuuming - can easily pull off decorative elements. Water should never be used because it lifts gilding and softens underlying supports. Finally, do-it-yourself frame restoration is about as successful as do-it-yourself dental repair. It will cost more to correct mistakes than to have the job done right the first time.

Decorating maven Martha Stewart has filmed several segments at the Wilner workshop, illustrating how the artists there pursue such tasks as casting moldings or applying gold leaf. Working directly from antique frames in stock, the firm also creates exact replicas of period frames, which typically cost less than their prototypes. Wilner recently completed an order of 27 replicas for the White House.

Twenty-five years ago, antique frames were seriously undervalued, often picked up at junk shops for $50. Today, more information about frame makers and period styles has increased the desirability, and prices have soared into four- and five-figure ranges. Less sometimes sells for more: An ornate Louis XV revival frame from the 1830s may sell for $5,000 to $20,000, depending on size, while an elegantly simple frame designed in 1920 by artist Childe Hassam ranges from $15,000 to $50,000. Many painters created frame styles to perfectly complement their work. Other surrounds are the work of architects, such as Stanford White of McKim, Mead & White, who developed frames related to interior architectural moldings.

Rather than show his frames at antique shows, Eli Wilner has focused on a wide range of educational activities as the firm's main outreach to the public, or as he puts it, "If the main thrust is education, then the business comes." Staff members lecture at museums, historical societies and dealer-oriented programs, such as New York University's appraisal course and the Sotheby's Institute.

Wilner also condenses these teachings into books and videotapes, with a major volume set for September publication that will contain 200 illustrations and essays by curators and art historians. The company is also organizing a traveling exhibition of frames that will visit seven museums in 2001.

Pennsylvania collectors will have a chance to hear Suzanne Smeaton, gallery director of Eli Wilner & Company, this spring when she lectures at a seminar in the Trout Gallery of Dickinson College in Carlisle March 26, beginning at 2 p.m.; her subject will be "Exploring the borders of Art: American Picture Frames, 1820-1920." For more information, call 717 245-1344. Smeaton will return to Carlisle on April 17 to take part in the Cumberland County Historical Society Antiques Forum entitled "A Pennsylvania Palette", information 717-249-7610. Best book on the subject: The easily portable softbound volume, Antique American Frames: Identification and Price Guide (1995: $15) by Eli Wilner with Mervyn Kaufman, can be ordered through bookstores or directly from Eli Wilner & Company, 1525 York Ave., New York, N.Y. 10028: 212-744-6521. For more information on period frames, frame restoration, publications, frame replicas, or lectures, call the New York gallery or visit its Web site at www.eliwilner.com.

A standford White frame and a frame from the 1880s

A carved, incised American frame

A carved, incised American frame signed by Frederick Harer from around 1920.