Copyright © March 1998 Bloomberg Personal Magazine Reprinted with permission

By Ann Landi Photographs by Craig Cutler

Here's the new suspect in the lineup of desirable objects

When Painter John Alexander spied a big flamboyant frame at a friend's house in Sag Harbor, Long Island, he knew exactly what to do with it: char it with a blowtorch. "This was one of the ugliest things I'd ever seen - it looked like something you'd find in a mafioso's bathroom," Alexander recalls. "Immediately it occurred to me to burn off all the gilt. From the beginning, I had the idea of painting a bouquet of white roses to put in it."

The result, Roses in Burnt Frame (1996), is a lush mass of over-blown flowers in a blackened baroque setting. It may be the first case in art history of a picture's being inspired by its frame, but Alexander's attention to display suits the tenor of our times. More and more connoisseurs and curators are coming to consider frames as works of art unto themselves and therefore worth searching out and collecting in their own right. And in fact, the market for them is taking off - which means that genuine old frames are becoming scarcer.

"Frames are regularly selling in the hundreds of thousands in the old-master [drawings] world," says Eli Wilner, owner and director of Eli Wilner & Company in Manhattan and a prominent framing consultant. For example, the highest price at auction so far is $947,100, paid in the early '90s for an exquisitely carved amber mounting made in Danzig, Germany, in the 17th century.

"Frames have become much more generally popular," notes Gregory Rubinstein, director of old-master drawings at Sotheby's in London. "We've just had two exhibitions."

The National Academy of Design in New York included a separate section on frames in an exhibit that ended earlier this year and was dedicated to the artists of the Tenth Street Studio, a 19th-century landmark of American art. The Renwick Gallery of the National Museum of American Art, in Washington, D.C., is planning a big show in the year 2000 on American frames. Wilner predicts that there will be courses on the subject taught at universities. "We'll be seeing curators of frames, museums of frames," he says.

The general public may just be catching on, but painters have long known the value of a proper setting for their works. From the Renaissance to the present day, artists have often had a hand in what goes around the main event. Edward Hopper, for instance, is known to have written, "Do not remove this frame under any condition" on the backs of his pictures. "It's about process and control," says photographer Bob Mitchell, who frames all his own pictures. "I want to have as much control as I can over how the work is seen."

The earliest independent frames we know of date to the early 15th century. Before then, frames were literally integral to the artwork, carved into the same wooden slab as the recessed plane on which the picture was painted. By the 16th century, free-standing frames were an art form unto themselves, often chiseled with exuberant ornamentation - pillars, cherubs, rosettes, and seashells. Then there were frames that were designed to look like small buildings, a development that some historians attribute to Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446); his top-heavy architectural surrounds are known today as tabernacle frames.

It wasn't until the last decade or so that museums began to pay serious attention to appropriate period frames. "Essentially, there was an interior-decorator feeling that curators were allowed to exercise," says Joyce Hill Stoner, a professor and conservator with the joint art-conservation program of Winterthur Museum and the University of Delaware. Whatever looked right went around the paintings. Stoner credits recent scholarly attention to James McNeill Whistler, Georges Seurat, and the Pre-Raphaelite painters, all of whom were sticklers for presentation, with galleries' and museums' current awareness of the importance of framing.

Young Eli Wilner was well ahead of the curve. Sixteen years ago, while running the framing department for Shepherd Gallery in New York City, Wilner saw gold in dealers' and auctioneers' garbage. Galleries regularly dumped frames because each favored a particular style, regardless of the painting's composition or date. Auction houses, following sales, would also toss frames having chips or flaws, believing it was not worth the effort to restore them.

"After every auction, I would grab a cab, and I would find frames lying outside, stacked against the parking meters," Wilner says. He scooped them up. At the time, Shepherd was selling only reproduction frames. "One day some of the people who threw out frames came by the gallery and bought them back for $50 each," Wilner recalls. "I said to myself, 'Let's look around a little more.' "

In canvassing dealers who specialized in antique mountings, Wilner learned that prime European examples were selling for thousands of dollars. Sensing that the market for American paintings was about to explode, he reasoned that American frames might well follow. Wilner left his post at Shepherd and devoted his time to scouring rural flea markets and antiques stores for overlooked treasures, which he snapped up for peanuts. In his first year, working out of his apartment, Wilner grossed $200,000. Over time, he has built up a $2 million-plus business that now employs 20 people. In his shop on York Avenue, Wilner displays examples from all periods - tiny, delicately carved settings from the 16th century, elaborately gilded tabernacle frames, and frames within frames - but he deals primarily in 19th-century American and European creations. And at this point, he wants to sell only replicas, holding on to his originals because they're becoming so scarce. "I try to show new clients how good my copies are so that I can keep the frames," he says. "But one just went to another dealer and bought an antique frame for $100,000."

Because of the expertise he has acquired, Wilner now advises museum curators. He took Polaroids of period frames while visiting collections around the country and noticed, for instance, that a Thomas Cole landscape from the mid-19th century in Boston's Museum of Fine Arts was displayed in the same mounting as a Cole from about the same date in the Denver Art Museum. Wilner "began to accumulate a memory bank," which he has downloaded into a thick scrapbook of snapshots and, with Mervyn Kaufman, a book: Antique American Frames: Identification and Price Guide (Avon).

A big part of the pleasure - and challenge - of collecting frames is in finding those that are the right match for the art you have, making a marriage that will enhance both. Sometimes an artist will have already done that, and you can learn from those examples. Take designer-architect Stanford White. He turned to the tabernacle tradition of Brunelleschi and used similar style frames for paintings of his 19th-century patrons, which gave them a stately air. American painter James McNeill Whistler designed most of the frames for his paintings, often incorporating his signature butterfly. (Whistler went well beyond the frame in establishing the right setting for his work. He had a penchant for repainting galleries where he had shows in shades that would flatter his pictures, and he himself would dress in colors that complemented the work.)

When Wilner learned that President Clinton was putting Childe Hassam's 1917 painting Avenue in the Rain in the Oval Office, he also discovered that the picture was set in what he recalls as a "horrible French reproduction frame with a linen liner," something totally inappropriate for an American impressionist. So he made a replica of an original Hassam design in his shop and presented it to Clinton. (The gesture led to a call from the White House curator and commissions for 24 other projects.)

The criteria Wilner applies to White House endeavors are equally valid for other collectors. "I like to date frames within five years of when the painting was made," he says. "If the work was done in 1875, I will recommend a frame [type] from 1870 to 1880."

Other considerations are purely aesthetic: Look for the same elements that distinguish a good sculpture - form, shape, color, scale. Wood may seem the most desirable material, but there's nothing wrong with plaster, the preferred medium for most 19th-century frames. Because they're more susceptible to chipping, plaster frames simply require gender handling.

How much difference does the right frame make? Wilner tells of one client for whom he recently refrained about 12 paintings. When he showed her a small Albert Bierstadt view of Niagara Falls, removed from its ugly painted support and newly surrounded by a period-perfect gilded showcase, she burst into tears.

"She'd had this one painting for 20 years and had never really seen it," he recalls. "It was so beautiful - it came alive."

Carved Italian picture frame
Right: Carved Italian frame from the 19th century.

Three frames, including one from American frame maker Maurice FinckenTop to bottom: A trio from Italy, America, and France, all carved and gilded.
The middle one is by noted American frame maker Maurice Fincken.

Gilded frames from 19th-centuryTouched by an angle: (Left to right) Gilded frames from 19th-century England and Germany, and a Stanford White grill design, ca. 1900.