In the frame – how to buy an antique picture frame

Marcus Grey of Roseberys auctioneersDemand for antique picture frames is growing, says Marcus Grey, head of Rosebery’s picture department, sharing advice on buying, importance of condition and the sought-after styles and eras.

Many auction houses are reporting increasing interest in the style. Why?

It’s a slow but steady climb. Knowledge on the subject has been growing since the internet opened it up as a collecting genre. Prior to that, information to the wider public was limited and it was only professionals and specialists in the field who had in-depth understanding of frames. In those days the market was restricted, now, with information readily available, interest is growing.

Why do people collect? Is it to reframe existing pictures or something else?

It is becoming increasingly popular for frames to be collected purely for their aesthetic appeal. Picture frames are being seen as works of art in their own right, and there are even collectors who display frames on the walls without any pictures at all. Added to which, there is a growing sensitivity towards An antique picture frameframes. Collectors have a greater understanding that paintings look their best with either their original frames, or ones sympathetic in style and design.

One can liken a painting with its original frame to a house retaining its windows and glazing. As we grow more conscious of conservation, there is an increasing interest and willingness to explore how a painting would have been presented and try to replicate it. People also buy frames to turn into a mirror, which is an increasingly common interiors trend, especially as frames can be picked up at auctions and elsewhere a very reasonable price.

What is the current demand for when it comes to antique picture frames?

Authentic pieces, and carved and gilded frames. Period English, French, Italian and Spanish frames are always sought after.

Could you give a brief overview of the different styles and eras?

Very early frames were actually built into the walls of a building. They were even built in above doors and fireplaces to imitate a window, with the oil panel painting and frame being fixed together. Over time, as the middle classes developed, paintings became a status symbol and people wanted them to be portable.

As frames were meant to imitate a window, you often see early versions with a rain sill on their lower edge. As time went on, frames became more and more ornate, culminating in the Louis XVI period. Later the style became more stripped back, including the understated designs associated with the Pre-Raphaelite Movement.

What role did the artist have over the framing of his/her paintings?

Some artists had no involvement but for others the frame was very important. The Polish post-impressionist Alfred Wolmark, for instance, incorporated frames into his work, giving the finished pieces an overall decorative effect. He designed all his own frames between 1910 and the early 1930s, adorning them with patterns. His son Eric once said: “Nearly all his paintings were conceived as decorations with the purpose of decorating someone’s walls, the frames being an essential part of the decoration.

Which eras, styles and designs are the most appealing?

Some frames can be worth more than the paintings they hold. These include early Spanish frames, because of their age and how they are built. The Spanish produced a distinct, flamboyant style, which An antique picture framewas noted for its heavily-carved corners that matched the artworks being created at the time.

The French are generally considered to be the best frame makers, so Gallic designs from the 17th and 18th century are greatly sought after. Frames are rarely signed by their makers, meaning anything on the back that indicates when, where and by whom they were made is, on the whole, a good find.

Are there any guidelines on which frames suit which paintings?

Contemporaneous is generally best. With older paintings it is more sympathetic to display them in a frame of the period. Modern and contemporary work can look good in earlier period frames but it wouldn’t be advisable to put an Old Master in a modern design. On the other hand, the bold designs of early Spanish frames complimented Picasso, even though they were from a very different time and period.

How important is condition when it comes to antique picture frames?

Condition is really important. Damaged frames – unless very old – have little value. Mass-produced designs of the 19th century are also low in value if they are damaged, because it costs so much to repair them.

Also look out for fakes. Feel the quality of the wood and look for signs of warping, this can give a good idea as to whether the frame is genuinely old or a modern reproduction. Edges should be smooth, as they would have been handled and touched over time. A modern frame will have sharp edges. Look at the back, has it had new additions, is there general wear and tear?

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