A little frame goes a long way

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By Claire Wilson

FRAMES are the fashion accessories of the art world. And just as the wrong shoes can ruin a Prada outfit, the wrong frame can ruin a Picasso. Yet collectors are often flummoxed: should the frame reflect the artist's style, period or palette - or some combination of these?

Eli Wilner, a leading dealer in antique frames (1525 York Avenue, at 81st Street; 212-744-6521) who also makes replicas of period frames for the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the White House, said people should expect to spend 10 percent of the value of the painting on a frame.

Christie's and Sotheby's tend to borrow period frames for important auctions because they help sell works, but framers and curators agree that a period frame does not add lasting value to a painting. "A diamond in a beautiful setting sells for more than a diamond in a bad setting," Mr. Wilner said. But, he added, "it's not whether it is a period frame or a replica of a period frame that adds value to the painting. It is the style and the quality of execution that adds value."

Nonetheless, Mr. Wilner said, period frames are increasingly in demand, with prices up 600 percent since 1990 (the year the Met held an exhibition of antique frames). Collectors and museums are especially willing to pay a premium if a frame is original to a painting.

A frame made by an artist for a particular work is worth three times as much as a frame from the same period not determined to be for a specific painting, he said. Van Gogh, Degas and Eakins are among those who made their own. Whistler signed his frames instead of his paintings - with a signature butterfly - so the two would not be separated.