Fine Antique Frames Q & A

A group of gold frames hanging on the wall.

Q. What is a fine antique frame?

A. The quality of antique frames can vary considerably with variations in materials and craftsmanship.
Fine antique frames can be from any period in history. They would have a well balanced design that was skillfully executed. All elements of the frame from the overall scale, the shape of the moulding, the ornament (if any) and the surfaces, whether gold leaf or painted, would be done artistically or in a sensitive manner.

Q. Where can I find fine antique frames?

A. Atelier Richard Boerth has a wide selection of fine antique frames suitable for art or mirrors. We have frames from the 18th to mid 20th century in many styles and sizes. Our expertise can inform and guide you in your selection.

Q. How are these frames made?

A. Frames made from the Renaissance to the late 1700’s were most often shaped or carved from wood which could then be left unfinished or be painted or gilded. These are desirable because of the time and expertise needed to produce them. Often incorporating forms from antiquity they have a balance in their shape and in any decorative motifs. After that time frames were increasingly made of wood with cast ornament applied to it.

These were less costly and required less mastery to produce. Many beautifully designed and well made frames can be found from this era but also many were produced that were ungainly and poorly executed.

Q. Are 20th century frames of any value?

A. At the end of the 19th century there was a turn away from the excesses of ornament often found on Victorian frames. Many frames reduced or eliminated embellishments and there was a return to simpler forms, hand carving and respect for the craftsmanship of the past. Many of these frames were signed by their makers and are highly sought after.

Q. Are folk art or artist made frames desirable?

A. These can be both charming and highly sought after. The appeal of any frame will depend on many factors including creativity and esthetically pleasing characteristics. Artist made frames, particularly those made for their own works, will usually be worth considering saving.

Q. When is it appropriate to use an antique frame?

A. Paintings or other artwork often look the best in a frame actually made close to the same period. Modern frames made as reproduction frames can often fail due to details that are missing or poorly executed such as the overall scale, the shape of the moulding or the applied ornament, if any. Most importantly, the finish on a a modern frame may lack a refined sense of what an antique surface should look like. An antique frame will have the proper appearance or spirit due to the character achieved over the years including wear and patina.

Q. What is patina?

A. Patina generally refers to the natural accumulation of dust and other deposits of time on an the surface of an object. A frame will also show any wear from cleaning or handling through the years.
Together, if not excessive, they will enhance the visual character of the surface whether viewed up close of from afar.

Q. What other characteristics would an antique frame have?

A. There is a noticeable “presence†that any frame or object attains through the passage of time.
This can be quite remarkable or more subtle. There is the sense of history and past lives and places. With the lack of any clear identifiers, one can wonder where the frame was made and whose hands shaped it. Where was it hung and what was the art it surrounded?

Q. Who made these frames?

A. Often these frames were made by anonymous craftspeople. Sometimes a label may be found on the back identifying a company or maker. Some frames were signed or stamped by the artisan. In the early 20th century, many notable artist / framemakers began carving their names on the backs of their frames and the practice spread. If any of these clues are lacking there is other evidence that a person knowledgeable about antique frames can uncover.

Q. How can one tell if an antique frame is carved wood or cast applied ornament?

A. A carved frame may look more fluid or slightly less precise than one with cast ornament. All similar parts of cast ornament will have come out of the same mold and there will be a uniformity and crispness to the appearance. A carved wood frame may have some areas that have worn through, particularly at high points, that may show exposed wood underneath. A frame with applied ornament will often have fine cracks perpendicular to the length of the frame where the ornament has shrunk slightly. Missing pieces of ornament are are also a good indicator.

Q. What is the applied ornament made of?

A. There were many different materials used that could be cast and applied. Two of the most common were a composition material referred to as compo, for short, and plaster. There would be advantages to using one over the other and sometimes they can both be found on the same frame.
Compo was made from whiting, hide glue, rosin and linseed oil mixed together while all are warm into a stiff dough like putty. The advantage it has over plaster is that it is pliable before it cures and can be manipulated and set onto irregular and curved surfaces.

Q. Are there antique frames that aren’t ornate?

A. Antique frames are available from the unadorned to the opulent. Each age produced frames that ranged from plainer profiles to those with a profusion of ornament. At the end of the 1800’s frames generally became more simplified but no less intriguing. Continuing into the early to mid 20th C. the use of ornament declined further and fine frames had more emphasis on restrained design and simplified hand carving.

Q. Can antique frames be used in contemporary interiors?

A. Antique frames are often used in modern settings with impressive visual results. Whether as the most fitting type of frame for period art or as a frame for a mirror, they can be used to accent an area or be a dramatic focal point. There is a stimulating interplay between the historic and the contemporary that is used successfully in some of the best interior design.

Q What are the advantages of using an antique frame as a mirror frame?

A. Antique frames make excellent mirror frames. These frames have character and a complexity of surfaces that cannot be matched by modern mass produced frames that are often made of cast plastic with imitation gold leaf. Antique frames are hand made and unique with subtle variations in form, finishes and patina.

Q. What if a antique frame is not the right size, either too small or too large?

A. It is not unusual to find the perfect antique frame for a painting that is not the right size. Through the centuries frames have been reused on different works of art and altered to fit. The practice of sizing frames is ongoing and often necessary due to the relative scarcity of appropriate antique frames. Depending on the style of the frame and the degree of intricacy, sizing can either be fairly straight forward or a complex process. It is a time consuming process that demands expert wood working and restoration skills to be successful.