Eli Wilner discusses the importance of frames and proper techniques necessary for frame restoration

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Eli Wilner discusses the importance of frames and proper techniques necessary for frame restoration
Appropriate frame restoration is a critical factor in the care of frames. Gilded frames, especially, warrant experienced care. A knowledge of traditional gilding methods and materials can spell the difference between correct or incorrect treatment.

By: Eli Wilner

NEW YORK, NY.- There are many aspects to the management of an art collection. One area of considerable importance is the role that frames play in the preservation and display of an artwork. Frames themselves can be very valuable so it is of key importance that collectors seek those with the skills and information necessary to make informed decisions. Two key components discussed here are the value of frames on artworks and the proper techniques necessary to preserve both the art and frame.

Eli Wilner & Company prides themselves in providing an in-depth knowledge of frame history and framing techniques. Such a depth of knowledge enabled them to do an appraisal for a leading world-renowned art gallery. In business for decades, the gallery had accrued an exceptional collection of over 250 frames. The gallery had promised the collection to a major museum and a full USPAP (Uniform Standards of Professional Appraisal Practice)-compliant appraisal of the frames was needed for the IRS. The group encompassed all possible categories of value: from extraordinary European frames of the 18th century and earlier, to fine 19th century frames and 19th century reproductions of earlier frames, to frames of mid- 20th century and contemporary manufacture of both good and inferior quality. The task of categorizing and valuing the frames was further complicated by the range of size of each frame. In the end, the appraisal was assembled and submitted to the client (and the IRS) with a value of over $3,000,000.

In another case, proper frame valuation was of critical importance when Hurricane Ivan struck the coast of Florida with a vengeance. A number of frames that were part of a valuable collection assembled by a private collector were in storage. Not only was the building damaged- it was washed away down to the foundation. Among the many losses were fourteen exceptional carved and gilded frames. Working with the collector and the insurance company, Eli Wilner & Company was able to provide appropriate documentation and valuation of each frame. This expertise assisted both the collector and the insurance company in processing the claim for such a devastating loss reaching a settlement for over a half million dollars.

The proper handling and care of framed artworks can present special challenges. One such case was the restoration of a large contemporary artwork where both painting and frame comprised the overall artwork. Measuring – (app 10’ X 6’) when the home was painted workmen did not wear gloves and the oil from their hands tarnished the gilding powder used to finish the frame, resulting in dark handprints becoming visible on all four sides. At the client’s request, EWC staff went to the home and performed tests on the damaged areas. These tests showed that isolated treatment would not eliminate the marks and further compromised the gilded surface- a complete resurfacing and sealing was warranted. The work was done and the artwork was reinstalled- all done on site without the artwork leaving the clients premises.

In another case, a client had a collection of artworks that had suffered when loaned to an exhibition. Upon their return, the owner immediately noted the deteriorated condition of the frames and fittings. The owner was understandably reticent to have the artworks travel again, so the EWC team went to the residence and was able to remove the art from the frames, repair compromised hinges and refit the artworks. In some cases frames had to be removed and taken to the EWC studio to restore gilded surfaces that were delaminating. Once restored, the frames were refit on the artwork at the residence.

Appropriate frame restoration is a critical factor in the care of frames. Gilded frames, especially, warrant experienced care. A knowledge of traditional gilding methods and materials can spell the difference between correct or incorrect treatment. For example, it is all too often that a 19th century frame is restored using metal leaf, a material that would not have been used at the time the frame was made. Gilded frames often suffer the application of oil-based paint that renders the surface coarse and lifeless. One fascinating case is that of the original frame for the oil on canvas Portrait of Miss Caroline Welton by Abraham Archibald Anderson, c.1870-74 in the collection of the Mattatuck Museum in Waterbury, Connecticut.

A life-size portrait, the frame measures 96” at its highest point and 58” wide. The frame is a late 19th century gilded frame in the Neoclassical style composed of crossetted corners at the top, lamb’s tongue near the sight edge, a leaf-and-berry motif along the top edge and a banderol (twist) ornament at the back edge. There is a wreath approximately 13” across at top center and floral garland swags that extend approximately 18” down from the top at each side.

While the frame retained much of its original surface there were many areas of loss to both the gilded surface and passages of ornament. Losses to the surface were especially prevalent along the bottom, the upper sides, and the area where the wreath and swags join the frame. The left swag was missing almost completely and the right swag had losses. There was evidence of inferior prior repairs and oil-based paint had been applied in many areas. Corner miters were separating.

In order to restore the frame to its original grandeur it was first treated for any structural instability including the rejoining of the separating miters. The frame had been constructed so that it could be dis-assembled and re-assembled at the corners for easier transport. Care had to be taken to re-align the corners and assure a smooth joint without the benefit of nails or glue. Next, areas of ornament such as the wreath and swags were re-created where absent and broken, and re-attached to the main frame structure and then all areas of loss to the gilded surface were cleaned and prepared, and the gesso and bole layers re-applied and sanded.

In most restoration projects, at this phase in the process (after the entire frame has been restored both structurally and ornamentally) the surfaces are regilded using traditional water gilding methods and gold leaf, taking care to retain as much of the original gilded surface as possible. Upon completion of the gilding, a patina is applied to render the appearance of age so that all newly restored areas blend harmoniously with the original surface. Unfortunately, after this frame was regilded the new surface began to delaminate (flake away) and it was necessary to redo the surface. Imagine our surprise and frustration when the same delamination occurred after the second regilding. We will likely never know what caused the original gesso layer to become unstable and cause the delamination- perhaps the frame suffered water damage in the past or was stored for a long time in a damp basement or similar area. In any case, it was only after the third regilding of the frame that the surface stabilized and remained intact. This is typical of the sort of labor-intensive problems that can occur in any gilded antique frame. What may appear to be a straightforward process becomes far more complex and time consuming. In the end, nearly 500 hours were devoted to the restoration of the frame. Happily, the frame can now be reunited with the newly cleaned and conserved portrait, together they will have pride of place in the Waterbury City Hall for a special welcome home celebration.

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