Freeze Frame

There is what some are considering a resurgence of interest in antique and vintage frames. These highly sought after treasures can add interest and elegance to a piece of art and transform a space from blah to bold.

“A lot of artists I work with describe a frame as the icing on the cake,” says Donovan Killeen, a certified framer and restorer at A.L. Lowe Custom Framing.

“A good frame can bring a piece of art to life.”

But selecting the right frame for a piece of art can be tricky.

Killeen recommends that the frame match the era of the artwork, that is, an art deco piece should have an art deco frame. Likewise, a century-old portrait should have a frame of the same era or a replica of the same era.

Fine frames can be difficult to find and quite pricey. To learn about the rarest and most beautiful antique frames, read “The Secret Life of Frames” by Julius Lowy and visit his website ( to see his stunning selection of fine antique and vintage frames. Once you have decided what kind of frames you want and your budget, begin your search locally — but how does a novice know if a frame is old?

Killeen recommends you look at the back of the frame. If the wood is dark, the corners are joined with a triangular inset to keep it solid, and there are a few dings and scratches from natural wear, it’s a good bet that this frame is old. Also look at the front of the frame and check its patina. A soft, rubbed look denotes age.

If your frame needs restoration, say it’s missing a piece of ornamentation, it can be restored by an expert craftsman. Killeen restores a frame’s missing details by painstakingly making a mold of a similar piece and casting a new piece from the mold. By carefully mixing colors, he can match the original color to the new piece. Wobbly corners can be stabilized so the artwork will be secure in its new place. This type of restoration is laborious and expensive, but definitely worth the price.

“The object is not to make an old frame look new, only to repair the broken or unsecure element so the frame will hang securely on the wall,” he says. “You don’t want a fine piece all wiggly and wonky.”

Lest you think antique frames look good only in the Cabildo, think again. An antique frame can add just the pop to a contemporary setting. So pull that family portrait in its heirloom frame out of storage, and place on your wall. It’s all about balancing the old and new.

Locally, the best place to find these wonderful old pieces is estate sales. H and H Estate Sales and The Occasional Wife are two of the best sources.

“We are finding that young buyers are especially interested in these old frames,” says Kay Morrison of The Occasional Wife. “Often they do creative things with them — place mirrors in them and hang them in a renovated bathroom or foyer. Or they will place a contemporary piece of art in an older frame. They also paint them bold colors or plain white or black.”

Killeen says if you plan to paint an old frame, make sure you know the frame’s worth before you do this. He cringes at the thought of painting a truly fine piece. The really good frames are hard to locate and if the patina is beautiful or the frame is gold leaf, do not paint it. These rare finds are worth preserving as is. Do your homework so you won’t make a costly mistake.

As with other antiques, frames can be collector’s items that anchor a room. Take time to search these out, have patience and visit estate sales and antique shops on a regular basis. Then place that treasure on your wall to add just the warmth for which your room begs.