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Antique Frames Can Be Worth More Than the Art They Encompass

April 24, 1993|From Associated Press

Antique picture frames are highly valued collectibles in Europe, where they are often displayed, without canvases, as art in their own right. Such is not the case in the United States.

According to Traditional Home magazine, many galleries and even some museums--until recently--routinely discarded old frames, considering them out of style or not worth restoring. Even today, savvy frame collectors are rare, and old frames are often ignored.

"Picture frames," says frame collector Bill Adair, "are the most undervalued of antiques." The founder of Gold Leaf Studios in Washington, Adair discovers, designs, conserves and reproduces frames. He is the author of "The Frame in America, 1700-1900."

Why are frames so undervalued? The making of elaborate picture frames is nearly a lost art, so the artifacts have become increasingly misunderstood and unappreciated. A modern ethic has instilled a preference for minimalist frames, and information about the aesthetic and historical value of picture frames isn't widespread.

The result is an opportunity to collect frames just as they are beginning to be discovered. For now, frames can be found almost anywhere, from attics to fine antiques stores. Adair has spotted them at estate auctions, junk shops, garage sales--even in trash cans.

High-end collectors generally prefer hand-carved wooden frames made in the 18th Century or earlier. They tend to look for frames that exhibit particularly fine craftsmanship, are signed by the maker, have a documented provenance or are of a standard size. Frames like these--especially if European--can cost thousands or even tens of thousands of dollars.

But Adair says there's plenty of room beneath this rarefied ceiling for the beginning collector to find beautiful frames. The key is to look for American examples made within the last 150 years.

Among the oldest affordable frames are those of embossed brass, popular early in the 19th Century. They imitate the decoration and finish of gilt frames, are quite durable and can cost less than $500.

Just as handsome and even more affordable are manufactured frames made before and after the turn of the century.

"Many late 19th-Century, Eastlake-style photo frames and those made early in this century by the Newcomb-Macklin Co., for instance, would cost $1,500 to $2,000 to reproduce," said Adair. "Yet you can find originals for a tenth of that price, because they're not particularly valued. They're intrinsically good objects, though. Someday, they'll be valuable."

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