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PEOPLE : Mining a Talent in Gold : Seymour Lauber trained himself to become an expert in gilding, especially for harps. His celebrity clients have included Liberace and Harpo Marx.

September 10, 1993|R. DANIEL FOSTER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; R. Daniel Foster is a regular contributor to Valley Life.

If not for Liberace's taste for glitz, chances are that Seymour Lauber would long ago have pursued another career.

Lauber was the man behind the chan deliers, 18th-Century furniture and clothing that the late entertainer directed be slathered in pure gold leaf. Lauber, in fact, gilded an entire piano for a Liberace performance at the Hollywood Bowl in 1967.

"And I gilded his shoes to match," said Lauber, who now works in the garage of the Westlake Village home he shares with Marilyn, his wife of 50 years.

But it was harps, not pianos, that launched Lauber's career in the late 1940s. Now "unofficially retired," Lauber still does gild repair work for the company that gave him his start, the renowned Lyon & Healy Harp Co. based in Chicago.

According to experts in the industry, the 70-year-old craftsman is one of few who possess the skill to work on such intricate pieces. There are about 2,000 master gilders in the United States, according to the national Society of Gilders.

His talents have not gone unnoticed. Before its opening in 1974, the J. Paul Getty Museum commissioned Lauber to gild ornamental ceilings and paneling in the 17th-Century Rococo and Regency rooms that house its decorative arts collection. Examples of Lauber's work may be found at the National Museum of the Louvre in Paris, New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, the National Gallery in Washington and, during the 1960s, at the Kennedy White House and in the family's private antique collection.

Perhaps the work that eclipses all others is the gilding Lauber performed on Harpo Marx's harp in the early 1960s. "Out of the hundreds of harps I've gilded, it's certainly the most memorable," Lauber said, simply because the harp was so famous.

"To my knowledge, he's the only one on the West Coast who really has the experience to gild a harp," said Sam Neuberg, owner of Los Angeles-based Easy Leaf, a major supplier of gold leaf and supplies. "A frame or a table--any guy can gild. But it takes a real master to gild intricate carved pieces. He does all the work himself. He refuses to let anyone else apply the gold."

That, however, is how Lauber began his career--as a "gold thrower," or one who applies gold leaf without knowledge of gilding's complex preparation process. After Lauber was discharged from the Navy Air Corps in 1946, he was hired as a frame restorer by his wife's uncle in a New York City gilding shop. Lauber took note of the European craftsmen who did the shop's gilding.

"They were very secretive about their work," said Lauber, who worked at the shop for nine years. "They would set up cardboard screens in front of formulas they mixed. I guess they were afraid of being replaced."

Undaunted, Lauber took materials home and began experimenting. After months of mixing, he arrived at his own formula and surprised his employer with a frame he had gilded. He soon began doing gild repair for Lyon & Healy and, in 1948, received two "raw" harps, which he successfully sheathed in 23 3/4-karat gold leaf.

In 1964, Lauber moved from New Jersey to Canoga Park and set up shop in Beverly Hills. He began gilding for Liberace, Billy Rose, Salvador Dali, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Hearst Castle in San Simeon and the Guggenheim Foundation, among others.

"Museums and collectors are very choosy about where they take their pieces for gilding work," said Dale Barco, a Woodland Hills resident who has repaired harps for more than 30 years. "There are a few gilders in Los Angeles who say they do harps, but I wouldn't let any of them near mine. Seymour is the only one I know of who really knows what he's doing."

Lauber uses a water-based gilding method, which he said is preferred over the more commercially used oil method that lends a matte finish.

"With water gilding, you get that high, luminous shine that's so attractive," said Lauber, tilting back a $30,000 harp to reveal a dime-sized nick that needed repair. "More important than the top coat of gold is the base coat it's burnished on."

To prepare a surface, Lauber first applies a coat of gesso, a foundation paste, then layers of yellow and red clay, which on antique pieces often shows through the gild because of wear. The materials are mixed with distilled water, alcohol and rabbit's skin glue before application.

"My hand never touches the gold," said Lauber, demonstrating how gold is applied. Flipping through sheets of violet tissue, Lauber blew a sheet of gold leaf, 1/10,000th of an inch thick, onto a gilder's knife, where it fluttered in the air. He then wiped a wide sable brush over his face to work up some static, enabling the gold to adhere to the brush, which is used as an applicator. Burnishing is done with an agate-tipped instrument.

Lauber's greatest wish is to pass on his talent.

"I've tried to interest my 16-year-old granddaughter, Heather, who has lots of artistic talent, but she's never taken to it," said Lauber, showing a thick pad of hand-printed notes he has drafted as a how-to guide for future gilders. "I've always been proud that I've been self-taught. My only wish now is to see that all my experience is not lost."

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