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Evaluating Antique Frames

evaluate antique frames

There is one thing I can count on whenever I evaluate an estate: most rooms will have one floor and three or four walls. Consequently, well-decorated homes may have many more items on the walls than on the floors. Too often, estate executors spend most of their time inventorying the large items of furniture on the floors and giving only a cursory look at what’s on the walls. That can be a mistake.

The art on the walls—the quality, quantity, framing and display—can provide a good first impression of the overall quality of an estate. Also, the framing of the artwork can be a good clue as to whether an executor needs to call in an expert to take a closer look at the art. It’s rare that quality art is housed in a cheap frame (although it does happen). Sometimes, a nice frame will advise of the presence of noteworthy art. When that’s not the case—as in hobbyist or student artwork—the frame itself could be worth more than the art. Many antique frames are valuable collectibles in their own right.

Eli Wilner, author of “American Antique Frames Identification and Price Guide,” sets the standard for the place of antique frames in the American market. Wilner begins his book by recounting his path to becoming an antique frame dealer: Working for art dealers in New York City, he began to collect the antique frames that were being discarded by local art dealers. At the time, gallery owners didn’t want their quality art encumbered by old frames; their clients preferred new frames. By the mid-1990s, Wilner had his own gallery selling only antique frames, some with price tags above $20,000.

As Wilner points out, antique frames were dirt-cheap for decades. Decorators sometimes “dress up” mediocre art with a nice antique frame, so these days it’s not unusual to find nice antique frames surrounding run-of-the-mill artwork. Plus, the trend toward “historically accurate framing” has caused a revival in the demand for antique frames. Executors who view a middling, humdrum oil painting housed in a “fancy” frame would do well to take the painting off the wall and examine it to see if the frame may be of value (art notwithstanding).

For actual values, I suggest consulting Mr. Wilner’s book or his website, or an antique frame dealer in your city. Appraisals can be expensive, verbal valuations less so, but in either case it’s best to have a rough idea of what you have before seeking a valuation. Here are some tips on how to determine if a frame might be an antique, and what construction features may add value to a frame:

• Size matters. It’s not just a case of big frames costing more than small frames. From the Renaissance through the 19th century, there was no standardization in the size of paintings. Consequently, original frames weren’t standardized either. Old frames were sometimes cut to fit newer art. Skilled artisans could usually cut down a frame without ruining the overall aesthetic, but that wasn’t always the case. Sometimes old frames were butchered in the re-sizing process;

• How old is it? Age often relates directly to rarity, and rarity (all other factors being equal) raises value. But more importantly, is a frame the right age? By “right,” I mean what style period does the frame belong to, and what is the demand for that style? Original Art Deco- or Craftsman-period frames sell quite well when those furniture styles are selling. A frame’s marketability directly affects its value;

• Condition matters, as with every other collectible. If a frame’s corner miters are coming apart, the wood is split, the plaster is chipped and the finish is peeling, it’s not going to net a lot of money after restoration, even if it is old;

• How is it made? From across a room, it’s hard to tell the difference between an antique frame and a new antique-style frame. Pictures must be removed from the wall and examined. Antique frames will be made from four pieces of solid wood, mitered at the corners and held together by nails, sometimes reinforced at the corners. If there’s a backboard, it will be made from solid wood. Depending on the style of the frame, there may be ornamentation and gilding. Very old decorative frames were carved from wood, but in the 19th century composition pastes (plasters) were pressed into molds and the decoration applied to frames. So, an antique frame will have some heft to it. Modern frames are usually decorative molding cut from solid or composite wood or plastic resins and are held together by staples or metal corner brackets. Backing boards are usually Masonite or some other composite wood. When lifted, they are comparatively light;

• What is the finish? If you can see a frame’s wood grain, chances are good that it’s not an antique frame. Or, it’s an antique frame that has been restored. Varnishes used 100-plus years ago darken and crack with age, so many antique frames that originally had clear finishes will appear to be painted black. Metallic-colored frames (gold, silver or bronze) can be problematic as well. Some high-quality antique frames were painstakingly wrapped in gold or silver leaf. A single 23k-gold leaf measuring three inches square sells currently for about $2 and is very labor-intensive to apply. Over the years, so many gold-leaf frames have been painted over with metallic paints or improperly cleaned that it’s nearly impossible to tell what a frame’s original finish was. Painted over or not, if the frame’s finish shows seams where gold leaf squares would overlap, it is worth further investigation and should be taken to a restorer for evaluation.

In an estate probate setting, frames will be sold “as-is, where is,” and usually the price achieved by a liquidator will be the value accepted by the court for tax purposes. However, it is desirable for all parties to know the value of an estate’s assets, and antique frames are an asset that’s frequently overlooked.

Previously published by WorthPoint. com

Originally posted 2015-10-29 11:02:29.

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