Frame and Fortune

Forget the Painting—the true treasure just may be what surrounds it

New York Spaces Magazine, June 2007, art & antiques Section, Pages 36-38 By Nicola Nieburg

A MERE 50 YEARS AGO, you could find old frames in junk shops or even out with the trash-that’s if they hadn’t been melted down for the gold in their gilding.
But things have changed. Today some of those same antiques sell for $100,000 or more. The frame, often called the Cinderella of the art world, is now the belle of the ball.

Attitudes toward frames turned a corner in the 1980s, as a renewed interest in 19th-century American art directed more attention to what encased the works.
The broadening curiosity continued into the ‘90s, with frames the focus of exhibitions at institutions like The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Art Institute of Chicago. And in 1991, history was made as a 17th-century carved amber mirror frame sold for still-record high of $947,000 at Sotheby’s in London.

“The Finest frames are works of art in their own right,” says Eli Wilner, founder and CEO of Eli Wilner & Company, a Manhattan gallery specializing in frames. “They exhibit all of the qualities of any other three-dimensional object, and some, in my opinion, are truly sculptures.”

And just like sculpture, painting or photography, frame making has its own cadre of celebrity names. A casing signed by Herman Dudley Murphy or Charles Prendergast, two noted designers who had a Massachusetts framing shop in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, can set you back more than $200,000. The same is true of a piece by Stanford White, although the framed architect never signed his creations.

“Among the most valuable American frames are those from the Arts and Crafts period,” says Tracy Gill, co-owner of Gill & Lagodich Fine Period Frames & Restoration in Tribeca. “These were designed by artists amid a return to handcraftsmanship.”

That said, Gill notes that collectors have two main interests: aesthetics and historical importance. And Larry Shar, president of Julius Lowy Frame and Restoring Company, says people now are more aware of how the right frame can bring a painting to life. “There is a greater focus on marrying paintings and frames in a way that is historically and aesthetically correct,” he says. “People recognize that if they spend money and time choosing the right frame, it creates a sense of opulence and richness that adds credibility to the piece.”

How to get a good buy? Educate your eye by asking a curator or docent at a museum to walk you through a few collections and point out what’s good, bad, real and phony, Wilner advises. Another tip: Look at the back of a frame, he says. Fronts are often faked to resemble the style of an era, but the back is usually left alone. The older the frame, the darker the wood and the more abrasions-and that can reveal if it’s an authentic period piece. If anything proves that frames have arrived, it’s that some buyers are hanging them empty on walls. And Wilner does them one better: He puts frames within frames.

Eli Wilner & Company
1525 York Avenue
New York, NY 10028

Gilded frame of 1870s shadow box, which features applied ornament Gilded frame of 1870s shadow box, which features applied ornament, paired with the original incised wooden enclosure

The gilded frame of this 1870s shadow box, which features applied ornament, is paired with the original incised wooden enclosure.

The gilded frame of this 1870s shadow box, which features applied ornament, is paired with the original incised wooden enclosure.