Future of the antique picture frame market

When I started collecting and studying period frames in earnest in the early 1980s, they were still being discarded with the daily trash. Learning about the frames then was an uphill struggle with little information readily available. Today, nearly 25 years later, there is a growing body of scholarship available: books, videos, exhibition catalogs and essays.

Values noted are “current retail replacement values,” or what a person can expect to pay if seeking such frames for artworks at a dealer in frames. As is true in most areas, the factors of condition, rarity and size are of key importance. A word about the market for period frames: it is important to recognize that it is an illiquid market — not one where auctions regularly take place and allow a wider value to be established. The wide margin between what a dealer will pay when purchasing frames for their inventory and what the frames may ultimately retail for is influenced by several factors unique to frames.

First: the frame size. There was little standardization in painting sizes during the 19th century, so few frames fit without alteration. Sensitive and competent alteration of period frames is a costly and labor-intensive process that must be executed properly for frame value to be maintained.

Second: Due in part to this size issue and also because of historically appropriate framing (the attempt to marry artworks with frames of the same period) a fine frame may languish in inventory for many years simply because the right confluence of factors hasn’t occurred to allow the frame to be selected. (Indeed, some of our most spectacular frames have been in our inventory since I started the gallery.)

Third: There are nearly always restoration costs in order to put the frame in suitable condition.

Fourth: The market in fine period frames is inextricably entwined with the art market. The extraordinary prices achieved in frames correlates to the value of the paintings they can surround. If a client has just spent $200,000 or $300,000 on the Hudson River landscape of their dreams, it is not that far-fetched to understand that they are willing to pay as little as 10 percent of the cost of the painting on a fine period frame that will best complement and contain their prize. This cannot he emphasized enough. When assessing any period frame, you must look not only at what artwork it may be on at present, but also its inherent quality as a frame of its period, and the quality of artwork it may be able to surround.

antique picture frame(Figure 1)
The style of American frames can be closely associated with trends in art, architecture, design and decorative trends, and as the swing of a pendulum, styles tended to shift from simple to elaborate and back again. In the early years of the 19th century when the simple elegance of Duncan Phyfe furniture reigned supreme, the primary sort of art being made was portraiture. For the simple dignified images produced, frames of simple cove moldings were made. If any ornament was used it was often a simple twist ornament in the cove and shells or leaves for corner embellishments. Other motifs from the Empire style — wreaths, palmettes and urns — occasionally appeared.

antique picture frame(Figure 2)
As the century progressed painting moved toward landscape, the celebration of what was seen as divinity expressed through the untamed American wilderness. Ornaments on frames of the l850s reflected elements in the compositions: naturalistic forms such as vines, flowers and berries proliferated. The simple rectangles of earlier years softened and frames frequently had softly projecting corners and centers, and oval openings. These features echoed the popular Belter furniture created during the Rococo Revival period.

antique picture frame(Figure 3)
During the 1860s the pendulum swung back to a simpler style with the Renaissance Revival and the delight in neoclassical ornament. Soft undulant forms were replaced by the fluted cove design. The fluted cove was widely used and along with the laurel leaf and berry motif at the top edge, this form became the quintessential frame style for Hudson River landscapes.

antique picture frame(Figure 4)
In the 1870s painting styles grew to include genre scenes and depictions of the exotic locales of the Near East. Geometric motifs that echoed furniture and architecture in the artworks were employed. Moorish and Islamic pattern and calligraphy were used to embellish frames that enclosed scenes such as the interior of a mosque.

antique picture frame(Figure 5)
The 1880s signaled the height of Victorian eclecticism: There was no such thing as “too much of a good thing.” During this time, frames were elaborately composed of many different patterns of ornament at once.

antique picture frame(Figure 6)
The French Barbizon style of frame (itself a design based on 17th century Louis XIII frames) gained popularity and was widely reinterpreted in America. This was also a time of widespread industrialization and frame manufacture was no exception. Machines were made that allowed pattern to be stamped onto lengths of molding that could he chopped and joined, and silver leaf was widely used as an alternative to gold at less expense.

antique picture frame(Figure 7)
One of the results of this mass-manufacture was that ornament on frames was not carefully applied to resolve in a pleasing way. Patterns were joined together with jarring effect with little or no attention to form. Corner leaves that were made to mask the crude miters were made of pewter or lead and nailed on.

antique picture frame(Figure 8)
Eastlake-style frames also became popular with myriad variations available. The central characteristic that defines an American Eastlake-style frame is the incised design that usually appears at the corners. Painted surfaces emulating precious stone and black lacquer were popular surface treatments. Most of these frames were mass-produced to surround tintypes, the “everyman’s portraiture” of the day, and this is why most of these frames are found in small formats and can still be found in antique shop and flea markets today.

antique picture frame(Figure 9)
The turn of the 19th to the 20th century saw the creation of some of America’s most unique and elegant frame designs, especially those by Stanford White. Though White was an architect, his skill as a master of decorative interiors is legend, and his love of the Italian Renaissance informed his creations. White’s list of friends reads like a veritable Who’s Who of American artists of the day: Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Thomas Wilmer Dewing, Dwight Tryon, George DeForest Brush and Abbott Thayer to name a few. It was White who used the tabernacle-style frame to such dramatic effect, often adding many of his own stylistic embellishments.

antique picture frame(Figure 10)
Due to White’s untimely death in 1906 these frames are exceedingly rare. Some of White’s designs were acquired by the Newcomb-Macklin Co. after his death and produced posthumously. These vary greatly in quality and must be taken case by case. Many of these posthumous frames are gilded with metal leaf rather than the superior gold leaf that White would have specified.

antique picture frame(Figure 11)
As American Impressionism took hold and artists were experimenting with new styles of brushwork and a new palette of color, a new style of frame for this new art was born. It is appropriate that this was introduced by an artist. Hermann Dudley Murphy lived and worked in Boston and was greatly influenced by James McNeill Whistler, who was himself a frame reformer. Upon Murphy’s return from his travels in Europe, he purchased the necessary materials and taught himself to carve and gild. In doing so, he began to create frames based on the Venetian cassetta-style frame, a profile characterized by a broad flat panel and raised inner and outer edges. Murphy’s designs and those that followed are now widely referred to as American Impressionist-style frames.

(Figure 12)
In addition, after each frame was made, Murphy inscribed it, signaling that this, too, was an artwork worthy of a signature and a date.

antique picture frame(Figure 13)
Signed frames are always highly prized, even when the maker is unknown. There were other makers who signed their frames, such as Charles Prendergast and Frederick Harer. During this period there was also a heightened interest in the tonalities of the gilded surface and many frames were finished in silver, various shades of gold leaf and the much more coppery-colored metal leaf to better complement the artworks they enclosed.

antique picture frame(Figure 14)
With the conclusion of World War I, the coming depression and an increasingly technologically oriented society, art changed again. In frames, gilding gave way to painted and manipulated surface treatments. American Modernist painters such as Arthur Dove created simple wood frames with copper accents. John Marin took mass-produced flames and made them his own by drawing, painting and carving on them. Though at first glance these frames appear crude, they are often integral to the overall artwork and create a dynamic presentation where the hand of the artist is powerfully present.

Key points to keep in mind when acquiring frames that are likely to increase in value are the same as in many fields (age, style, size, rarity). A frame in good condition with its original gilded surface is most desirable. It should also be of a style that is well suited to fine art. Frame values increase as they are paired with exceptional artworks. Lastly, if a frame has been altered, the alteration should be nearly impossible to detect. A clumsy alteration can destroy a great frame.

As frame studies advance and the market continues to evolve, I hope that we’ll all continue to take a deeper look at the art of the frame.

For more information, contact Eli Wilner & Co., 1525 York Ave., New York, NY 10028, www.eliwilner.com. ?


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