Many options to consider when looking into frame restoration

Published 3:29 pm Friday, January 4, 2019

Question: OK Jerry, talk to me about frames. My family is very blessed to have a good number of nice oil paintings that we inherited over the years. Nothing really valuable. We had them looked at about three years ago. Mostly Victorian pieces. All were in very dirty condition with some having a few holes and rips. Some had had a rough life and everyone smoked like chimneys back in the day.

We selected our favorites and the most valuable one and had them restored in Cincinnati. Trust me it wasn’t cheap. I inquired about doing something with the frames and the restoration for the frames was going to cost more than the restoration of the paintings themselves.

What should we do? They look horrible with chips, a dead gold color and big cracks in the corners. I mean they are stable but just are so ugly.

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Should we get new frames? Please advise me.

Answer: Frames not only enhance art, but help to protect it. That being said, frames take the brunt of many issues, drops, dust, pokes and gouges and often are used to “spruce up” a painting because of change in tastes. Much like a painting, a frame is made up of layers.

In regards to your Victorian frames and not hand-carved wooden masterpieces, a typical older frame consists of a wooden substructure covered in a gesso or plaster with applied or molded details, and then some type of gilding or surface decoration.

Incidentally, most older frames are gilded in order to help reflect what precious light there might be in a room. Plus it was expensive and was a big status affair.

Frames, in the eyes of the artist, show how he or she wants a work to be seen. Every frame is different and affects the way a painting is perceived by the viewer. You only sent me close ups of your frames, so it’s hard for me to be able to tell what is original and what is a later replacement. Frames, like clothing, were often changed. From what I can see, your art would have had elaborate, heavy frames.

It’s a concern that plagues many. When I asked an advanced art collector a long time ago about having art restored, he replied, “Canvas first, frames later.” Restoration on frames can be, and often is, incredibly expensive. Though it is part of the art, you’ve done the right thing in preserving the canvases.

Here are a few things you can do for your ailing frames.

1. You can just live with it.

Chippy frames have been a hallmark in European homes for centuries. You still have a period frame, though it’s rough, but it’s original or close to it.

2. You can buy a new frame. However, you must be careful and deal with a reputable framer who understands older art and frames, or you’ll be stuck with one of those God awful “cookie cutter” fake gold frames made from puffy hardened plastic. You won’t find this type frame at a crafts store.

3. Save up your money and buy a museum quality frame.

Well, never mind. Just pay for the old frame to be restored. You’ll likely spend less money because old world craftsmanship in today’s economic world equals big bucks. If it’s a color issue, as in the original gilding has been what I call, “radiatored” or painted in that old dull gold radiator paint, you might want to hone your skills with a hobby gilding kit of Dutch gold. Dutch gold is metal and is very thin but is not pure gold. It’s just a gold colored alloy. It’s fun to do but practice on a frame you care little about. For a large frame you’ll still have several hundreds of dollars invested in this endeavor. Do not do this if your frame is chipped or damaged. Gilding chips only highlights the damage. Save your money or restore the old frame. Or you can do what a lot of my friends do and look for antique frames in the correct size, shape, period and in better condition and switch them out. Do not attempt to have old plaster-covered frames cut down. This never ends well, as they break and shatter like chalk.

If you think that you do indeed have an original frame, keep it and label it as to which painting it goes to. Who knows —  in the future that frame, regardless of the condition, could be valuable and important to that painting and/or artist.

Hmmm, more options here than I thought. I think that it boils down to either living with it, finding the right antique frame or spending the money on proper restoration. Thanks for the great question. I hope this helps some.