A Frame Job

From being fermented in eight feet of brackish floodwater for three months to minor touch-ups, the New Orleans Conservation Guild has tackled it all in its efforts to restore antique and vintage frames to their original radiance—or as close as possible.

“After you restore it, it never looks brand new,” says Blake Vonder Haar, guild president and conservator-in-charge. But that’s OK, she continues, “Some like visceral wear… It’s shabby chic.”

Damaged frames before they get restored.

Vonder Haar operates one of the largest conservation labs in the United States, located right in the Bywater. The only gallery of its kind outside of Washington D.C. and New York has taken in 5,000 pieces to be refurbished since Hurricane Katrina. Its staff has tripled in size post-K with 30 volunteer conservators visiting to pitch in to ease the workload.

“Empty frames are works of art in itself,” says Vonder Haar, a conservator for 15 years. “We encourage clients to keep and restore their original or antique frames whenever possible. Historically, when a frame was commissioned for an individual painting, its cost was often equal to or more than the painting itself. Over time, most of these antique frames were damaged by amateur repairs and painting over the gold leaf, stressful environmental conditions, poor storage and rough handling.”

Old vs. New
Antique frames haven’t always been revered art items. Back in the 1970s, there was a worldwide trend in favor of modern-styled frames. As a result, thousands of relic frames were separated from their counterparts and cast aside, Vonder Haar explains.
It was during this period that Eli Wilner, a leading frame dealer, restorer and collector, established Eli Wilner & Company, to educate the public on the significance and beauty of this decorative art form. His New York City art gallery specializes
in American and European frames from the 19th through early 20th centuries.

A restored frame—the detail work is intricate.

“We have all different types of frames that come in for restoration ranging from ancestral portrait frames to important frames designed by the artists themselves like [James McNeill] Whistler and [Edgar] Degas,” says Wilner, whose company recently completed reframing 27 paintings for the White House.

Repairing a battered frame is both challenging and rewarding, Vonder Haar explains. A single job can take as long as six to eight months to complete if the piece is severely damaged, but once finished it is like reviving history. An intricately carved 17th-century Italian frame, damaged during transportation and a flood, took Wilner’s company 400 hours to properly finish.

Most restoration jobs involve cleaning and paint removal. The more extensive ones may require structural and ornament repair, re-carving, casting and gilding. There’s also refinishing which is standard for any type of frame repair whether it’s made of carved wood, plaster or gesso.

It is imperative to maintain the details of the initial framework—texture and pattern—when working to restore an item, Vonder Haar says. To achieve this, it is a must that the restorer uses the appropriate materials and keeps a sharp eye on even the smallest of design elements.

“I have demanding clients. They expect perfection,” says Vonder Haar, who has serviced high-end collectors as well as renowned art galleries.

In the process of restoring an antique frame at the New Orleans Conservation Guild.

Detail of a damaged frame.

Is it worth it?
Taking into consideration the amount of time and labor that
goes along with restoring some frames, at what point is a frame beyond repair?

“Pretty much anything can be done if you are willing to throw enough money at it, as it’s usually just a time issue,” says Vonder Haar. “I don’t think we’ve ever said one is truly beyond repair. They’re usually not done because it would be too expensive to do or because it’s a contemporary frame which makes more
sense simply to replace rather than restore.”

Wilner agrees: “We have only turned down projects because the frames weren’t worth the effort.”

The most valuable piece Wilner’s has restored was a Dutch frame for a Rembrandt Van Rijn painting that was recently sold at auction by Sotheby’s for $24 million. While many other prized frames aren’t worth that much, it isn’t uncommon for some to retail between $10,000 to $50,000, say Vonder Haar, whose resume includes working on a Vincent Van Gogh painting.

The craftsmanship and uniqueness of a frame is what determines its worth, say Vonder Haar, who fancies frames in the tramp art style, a type of folk art of the 19th and 20th centuries utilizing recycled found materials such as cedar or mahogany cigar boxes, by a technique involving the gluing or nailing together of successive thin layers of wood that are then whittled into intricate geometric designs to produce a protruding multifaceted surface. Frames designed by painter James McNeill Whistler and architect Stanford White are hard to come by and highly sought after, she explains, since most of their designs contain paintings.

Hank McNeil, a conservator for 30 years who is based at the New Orleans Conservation Guild, says frames are just as significant as the images or objects they enclose.

“The frame is the presentation of the piece. It’s like the difference between a guy in a T-shirt and a guy in a suit,” McNeil says. “He looks better in the suit.”

Where to find or restore antique frames in New Orleans:

New Orleans Conservation Guild,
3620 Royal St.,
944-7900.
Hours: Mon.-Sat.,
9:30 a.m. – 6 p.m.;
Thurs. until 8 p.m.

Photographs for article were taken at New Orleans Conservation Guild.