In a famous episode of TV antiques drama Lovejoy (‘Swings and Roundabouts’, 1993), the often overlooked picture frame plays the starring role.
The roguish dealer has arch-rival Charlie Gimbert foxed when he pays £750 for a worthless picture of a village fete. Only after the saga unfolds (and Gimbert left out of pocket) does Lovejoy reveal that it was the 18th century ‘Salvator Rosa’ frame rather than the canvas which could be worth £15,000.
So are you a Gimbert or a Lovejoy? Do you know what a Kit-cat size is? Or the difference between sight and rebate size?
The demand for antique frames is making somewhat of a comeback. Specialists believe there is a resurgence – private collectors now, more than ever, value the right frame on the right picture.
The demand for antique frames has, of course, been affected by trends in fashion and taste. As with many areas of traditional art and antiques, the boom times of the 1980s are long gone (there used to be regular, dedicated frame sales in London, Italy and France) and Bonhams ceased its regular dedicated Fine Frames sale in March 2011.
However, frame specialists believe there has recently been an increase in the demand and desire for antique frames.
Some new auction houses have found they can carve out a niche in the void. Buffy Parker who founded Parker Fine Art Auctions is among them (see box on facing page).
Chiswick Auctions has recently held frame sales on an ad hoc basis. Its first was in February and the west London firm plans up to two a year with the next planned for the spring.
Luke Price, head of frame sales in Chiswick’s paintings department, says: “Bonhams and Christie’s used to hold regular frame sales. But for us it really was uncharted waters as to the response we would get when we held our first. The sale has brought in a lot of new clients who are enthusiastic to learn about frames, so it’s about building a department. We had a 95% sold rate and some healthy prices.
“But the market has changed: the market is looking for exceptional pieces, mostly period. The Italian frames tend to be most popular as they work in contemporary and period settings.”
Meanwhile, the October 2 sale of the collection of master framer and restorer Eli Wilner at Helmuth Stone in Florida featuring over 2500 frames ranging in date from the 18th through to the 20th century will also be a market moment.
Frames are no longer an afterthought and antique frame dealers are held in high regard. At the recent TEFAF Maastricht fair Italian antique frame dealer Enrico Ceci had a prominent stand. Ceci, who founded his company in 1975, has a small team at his gallery and exhibits at TEFAF and the top Italian and French art fairs.
He has noticed the change in demand and says: “I think that especially in recent years, collectors, big dealers and institutions such as museums and foundations have realised the importance that the right antique frame can have in enhancing their paintings.”
Peter Last, an independent frame dealer for the past 20 years, started out at Bonhams in its frame department in 1995. Last, based in Bristol trading online and at fairs, says: “More and more people are becoming aware of the beauty of a frame in its own right and how it can complement the artwork.
“Fifteen years ago 90% of what I sold was to the trade, to dealers buying for their pictures. Now the wider public are more knowledgeable. They want the right date for their frame to match their picture. They are putting mirrors in antique frames and the desire and demand has grown.”
Picture and antique frame dealer Charles Daggett, who runs Charles Daggett Gallery on Kensington Church Street, concurs: “In the past, more than 10 years ago, 80% of my customers were dealers, now 80% are private buyers. The change is due to the fact collectors now have the opportunity to see auctions all over the world and are comfortable buying through internet platforms. Previously it was the dealer who orchestrated all the restoration and reframing before offering the work for sale, but now the collector must do this.
“Collectors have become far more knowledgeable and really know how a good frame can completely transform a picture. I offer every service someone would need to get their picture ready to hang on the wall.”
Having taken over an existing antique frame business 32 years ago, Daggett (who has traded from Kensington Church Street for the past 12 years) has seen the changing tastes and trends. “I like to see the picture that the customer wants to frame. I can then show the client how different frames change its complexion. When I see a painting, I immediately know what sort of frame will look best. We can look at several options, but it’s funny how generally a frame from the same date and the same region as the painting usually works best.”
Having a good stock of frames is important, but it is a balancing act.
Daggett adds: “Being a frame dealer can be so frustrating… I have at least a thousand in stock but I could have 10,000 and still not have the right type for every customer. It would be incredibly difficult to start out today as it takes years to build up the stock and it’s not easy to find good frames.
“You cannot buy a frame from a photo and be confident it is gilded and not overpainted with gold paint, so I have a network of people all over the country constantly looking for me. An antique frame which is overpainted is worth less than one third of a properly gilded example.”
So what are the collectors buying?
Last notes the “Country House look is still in vogue (maybe it always has been but it is definitely not going away) so quality Georgian frames are very much in demand. But black frames are also very popular as they can work in a period, and a modern interior. Silvered frames have also become popular as they work with Contemporary art and modern black and white photos.”
Collectors and artists make up a large section of the buyers but there is a growing segment: film prop buyers (who are also buying an array of antiques).
Last adds: “I have been selling far more to prop buyers for film sets as well as for restaurants and bars. For prop buyers there is quite a wide range of eras that they may want from Georgian onwards. And the condition doesn’t have to be perfect for a film set so I sell quite a lot to that market.”
Pitfalls to avoid
No matter the type of buyer, not taking into account what a frame was originally used or designed for can lead to errors.
Michael Gregory, at Arnold Wiggins & Sons, has held a Royal Warrant as a picture frame maker since 1991 and advises museum curators, private collectors, art consultants and the art trade on framing paintings in historically appropriate frames.
The firm also lends frames to unframed pictures coming up at auction at Christie’s and Sotheby’s.
He says: “The role of the picture frame is important, suggesting nationality, country and provenance of a painting. Over the years paintings have often been reframed and may no longer be in a frame of the appropriate style, country or quality. A poorly framed picture detracts from its appreciation and value.”
And for the higher end collector of art, the frame is even more important. Gregory adds: “Someone can spend hundreds of thousands or millions of pounds on a picture which can be let down by its frame. If someone has spent a lot on a picture then the frame is even more critical. This has almost become more important recently.
“Collectors want to restore the picture to its full potential and a frame can critically define the period that the picture was painted in as well as actually enhance the asset. Remember, if the collector has paid a lot of money, this isn’t just a picture – it is an asset.
“We can protect the investment in the picture by conservation framing. Adding low reflective glazing and a back board, and preserving and protecting labels on the back is also important. If a collector plans to loan the artwork to a museum, for instance, they want to make sure the picture is looking its very best in a good frame.
“Collectors are usually more than happy to pay to ensure their asset is protected. Framing is about the service and the advice that we provide which is more critical than ever.”
Need for the new
Sometimes clients prefer to replicate frames they already own.
Julia Korner of Julia Korner Conservation & Fine Art has more than 40 years’ experience in framing. Setting up frame sales at Christie’s in the late 1980s, she now lectures on the history of frames as well as handmaking frames, carving and gilding and copying clients’ frames (alongside working as a picture dealer).
She says: “Clients and I choose to copy frames for several reasons: from time to time they have another painting in its original frame, made by the artist’s frame maker and making another version or copy, gives their other painting gravitas and symmetry to the ‘hang’ in the room.
“Another reason might be that the frame they have, is in appalling, unsalvageable condition, and making another version, complete with patina, is the right way to proceed.”
Korner says she strives to “frame a painting in such a way that it is a subtle extension of the painting itself, almost unnoticeable, then the work of art is enhanced and harmony is achieved”.
Whether you are a small-time enthusiast or a billionaire art collector, when you have got your frame home don’t forgot to consider how to hang, clean and (for the very special pieces) light it.
Andrew Molyneux, co-founding director at TM Lighting, says: “While lighting the canvas is always the main priority for art lighting, the frame is also intrinsically linked to the artwork and can impact the way in which we interpret a piece of art.
“Creating a balance is critical to avoid the frame either causing a glare, or casting shadows in certain areas on ornate frames. Overhead lighting from spotlights or picture lights will ensure an even wash over both the canvas and frame but there are a number of techniques which we employ including [when working with a detailed frame] uplighting the piece.”
The right fixtures and fittings should also be used: ensure you have the correct picture wire or cord and ensure the fitting and the wall you are fixing it to will take the weight. Many a frame has been damaged by falling from the wall.
Cleaning the picture should also be done with care. Oliver White, head of furniture at conservation firm Plowden & Smith, says: “Don’t use a solvent or water which can cause damage and even over time with a cleaning cloth it can wear off gold leaf. The best way to clean is with a feather duster.”
So whether you are a Charlie Gimbert or a Lovejoy, make the feather duster your friend.