Eli Wilner's Job
Putting the Frame in the Picture

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Arts & Leisure
By John Strausbaugh
Published: January 4, 2004

You know that dour Victorian portrait your Aunt Tillie left you? Get it down from the attic. Even if the painting's not worth anything, the frame might fetch up to $200,000. And if it does, Eli Wilner will be the man to thank. In 1982, when he was 26 and working as a painting restorer and framer, he began collecting antique frames that art dealers put out on the street as trash. It was cheaper for them to buy reproductions than to restore the old ones. Very old frames were valued, but those from the 19th and early 20th centuries, he recalls, "were considered junk."

In part, they were suffering the same fate as the late-19th-century paintings they once held; the fact that so many modernist painters had chosen to dispense with frames entirely didn't help matters either. "So curators, dealers and collectors dismissed an entire area of decorative arts," Mr. Wilner says. With a look of genuine horror he relates how some people even made a living burning old gilt frames for the gold.

In the early 1980's, however, the value of American paintings from the late 1800's began to soar, and works by artists like Winslow Homer, Frederic Church and Sanford Gifford started going for millions. Seeing a market in the making, Mr. Wilner quit his job to become a dealer specializing in frames from the period. He bought 300 frames "in antique stores all over the Catskills," he recalls, often for as little as $20. He was also given many frames by galleries glad to have them hauled away. He carted them all back to his rent-stabilized walk-up on the Upper East Side and hung out his shingle in 1983. "Everyone thought I was insane," he says, smiling. "From my parents to my art dealer friends to my present-day wife, everyone told me, 'This is the stupidest thing you'll ever do.' "

Wrong. Mr. Wilner's business was an instant success. Spurred by the booming market for American painting, museum curators, dealers and buyers streamed into his humble digs, causing so much commotion that his landlord kicked him out. He relocated to his present shop, three floors of a brownstone above a deli on York Avenue near 81st Street. The space had previously been an illegal gambling den. Mr. Wilner still uses the sturdy steel security door its operators installed.

Today the same frames that dealers once gave away sell for $10,000 to $35,000. (The record for a single sale is $947,000, for a 17th-century amber frame auctioned at Sotheby's in 1991.) Eli Wilner & Company has grown to 17 employees and does roughly $3 million a year in business. His collection has expanded to 3,000 frames, mostly 19th-century, but some dating back to the 1600's.

Since the mid-90's the market Mr. Wilner and others helped to create has made it much more difficult for him to add to his collection. He tries now to keep a level inventory, selling roughly as many frames as he buys, about 300 a year. And he has begun selling historically accurate replicas, constructed in a warehouse and work space in Long Island City, Queens. He recently sold 27 such pieces to the White House, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art is a regular customer. The most elaborate replicas have sold for as much as $25,000. Mr. Wilner does lend the originals (with a strategically placed small card identifying his company) to art museums around the country, and to Sotheby's and Christie's.

To match a frame to a painting Mr. Wilner has researched and cataloged changes in framing design in the 19th and 20th centuries. (Frames from the gaslight era, for example, tended to be deep and ornate, to catch and focus flickering illumination; they flattened out with the introduction of electric lighting.) He edited a sumptuously illustrated book of essays by curators and art historians on the subject, "The Gilded Edge," published by Chronicle Books in 2000.

Artists often took obsessive care in framing their work. It's said that if you bought a painting from Degas and gave it a new frame, he might march to your house and rip it down. Thomas Eakins built and decorated frames to augment his portraits; for example, he incised mathematical symbols and formulas into the frame for his portrait of the physicist Henry A. Rowland. Whistler made sure his paintings wouldn't be separated from his frames by signing the frames, not the paintings.

The customers for these reclaimed works of art now range from chief executives of major corporations who've just scored an American master at auction to old money families seeking the proper frames for ancestors' portraits.

Mr. Wilner's favorite private customer, the Florida art patron Justine Simoni, collects frames as art objects in their own right. She has more than 200, which hang empty all over her home in Pensacola. The Pensacola Museum of Art will exhibit a selection in May. "I wish I could clone her," Mr. Wilner says fondly. "I've always seen these as three-dimensional sculptures that you could hang on the wall, but Justine's the first collector I've known who shared that vision." John Strausbaugh is the author of "Rock 'Til You Drop: The Decline From Rebellion to Nostalgia."

Eli Wilner in his studio in front of many painting frames

Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

Eli Wilner in his Upper East Side studio. His success selling antique frames has made it more difficult for him to buy them.