Buying & Selling Antique and Old Picture Frames

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A Short Guide to Buying and Selling Antique Frames

Antique, old, and vintage picture frames have become collectable and valuable pieces of art in there own right. Examples of 19th Century composition frames, carved frames, veneer frames and the often seen oak frames can all be found for sale on eBay as can many Victorian and Edwardian mass produced frames and modern reproduction frames that are sometimes sold as antiques. It can be difficult for buyer and seller alike to identify one from the other. I hope that this very brief guide will be of some use.
A useful guide to the more common Victorian/Edwardian frames is the book 'Victorian Wooden Molding and Frame Designs' by H.Morell. This catalogue has all the most common and mass produced lower end frames right through to some good quality compo frame styles often seen on eBay, dated 1910 this was a picture frame moulding suppliers catalogue (who were established in 1860), and high street picture framers around the country would offer these frames to the general public from simple oak and pine frames to the latest mass produced styles to more exclusive frames that were sold 'in the white' ready for water gilding. It is rare that truly excellent examples of carved or compo frames appear on eBay, but it does happen sometimes. If you are interested in a list of books about high quality antique frames, gilding, or restoration then please contact me.

I think that quite a few old and antique frames sold on eBay are described in a misleading way, which is of course usually not the intention of the seller as it can be difficult for someone not experienced in dealing with old frames to accurately describe them, it is hard to put a date on a frame when it could have been made over a period of 50 years or so or to give a detailed description of the creative techniques. For example the word 'gesso' is often used inaccurately to describe compo ornament.

      A mitre joint with spline.                     A butterfly key.                         

The first thing I do when I examine at an old frame is to look at the back, and I think that any one selling a frame as an antique should post a photo of the back of the frame. The most common technique used to join the mitres was to use nails in the side of the frame. If a carpenters method such as the lap joint, tapered spline, butterfly key,  dove tail, or mortice and tenon have been used then it is a good sign that the frame was made by a skilled craftsman and is therefore of a higher quality and more collectable. Secondly I find out if the frame is carved or is moulded, it can be difficult for many people to identify if a frame is carved. I would say that 8 out of 10 frames that are described as carved are actually made from composition or another form or moulded ornament. The easiest way to identify compo is from cracks that appear in the surface and also at the corners, especially on an ornate frame is if the ornament does not match where the two lengths join. Any frame with compo decoration is probably not older than the 19th Century, although moulded ornament was used in the 18th Century these frames are quite rare. Many oak frames that have carved patterns are not carved by hand but by machine. If the pattern is very regular and does not meet at the corners then it is probably machine carved. On softer woods the carved effect can be embossed onto the surface. There are other materials used to decorate frames such a plaster, resin, and moulded wood pulp.

It is often the case that a good quality frame will have been over painted with gold or white paint at some time in its life. It is not unusual to find 2 or 3 layers of gilding on antique frames as they have been re gilded over the centuries. It is becoming harder to find frames with their original finish. But on fine frames it is possible to remove this paint and restore them to their original condition. A good antique frame is worth restoring no matter how bad its condition. If a frame looks old then it probably is, look for wood worm holes, many holes in the back where fixings have been attached, old labels and fixings and so on. Another problem in identifying old frames is that over time many frame styles have been 'revived' or copied at a later date, so it can be difficult to identify a original Louis XV carved swept with a good quality carved 19th Century copy, that is one for the real experts I am afraid! Even the more common compo frames can be worth restoring and re gilding in metal leaf or bronze powder, they can make very decorative items with a little time and effort. They are after all antiques and are worth preserving.

 

Glossary of Terms

Composition or compo

This material was used extensively from the 19th Century onwards as a cheap alternative to carving. Easily identified by cracks in the surface (compo sets very hard, and as the wood moves over time cracks appear in the compo) It is made from linseed oil, resin, whiting (calcium carbonate), and glue. There are various recipes. Mixed into a dough like material and then pressed into finely carved moulds, it sets firmly but remains flexible and is then glued to a gesso coated wooden frame. It dries very hard. It can then be coated in gesso but for mass produced frames no gesso was applied onto the compo. It is then gilded or painted. It is still used today to produce reproduction frames.

 Compo swept frame circa 1840       A good quality compo frame
        in a Louis XV style.                               circa 1875.

Carving

A wooden frame that has been skillfully carved by hand to produce ornament and shape. A very skilled and labour intensive technique. The number of frame carvers dropped dramatically with the introduction of compo, which led some artists groups such as the Pre Raphaelites to demand a return to the craftmanship of earlier times and to design their own frames which were skillfully made and are now very collectable.

Gesso

Made from whiting or gypsum (calcium carbonate or calcium sulphate) and mixed with animal glue. This white liquid is painted onto wooden frames that are to be gilded, it is used to fill the grain and provide a smooth surface. High quality frames have many layers applied by hand, these are then sanded smooth and then covered with coloured bole before the frame can be gilded. Mass produced frames are covered with a type of commercial gesso that again provides a smooth surface although this is done by machine. Gesso will react to water damage and extreme changes in temperature and humidity causing it to delaminate from its wooden base.

Bole

Fine coloured clay, usually red, yellow, black, or grey mixed with animal glue. This is only used on high quality frames, which can be either carved or compo ornamented. It is a necessary step to obtain a water gilded finish.

Oil Gilding

This technique can be used on virtually any surface, the adhesive used to bind the gold, metal, or powder to the surface is linseed oil based. It is often combined with water gilding on high quality frames, certain areas would be water gilded such as the high points and the back ground and low points of the frame would be oil gilded to provide contrast. It cannot be burnished and is therefore sometimes called matt or mordant gilding. The oil based size on antique frames sometimes had a yellow pigment, this is recognisable on some frames.

Water Gilding

A very high quality and labour intensive technique, which to an expert eye is easily recognizable. Look for 'leaf' or 'lap' lines on certain areas of the frame, these will be approx 3" apart and be distinct lines that show where the gilder has overlapped the gold leaf to avoid breaks in the gold surface. Water gilding is applied to a surface that has been coated with gesso and bole, it can then be burnished with an agate stone to produce a highly reflective finish that replicates solid gold. No other process can match the finish achieved by water gilding. The finish is easily damaged by contact with water, the distressing of water gilding with age is also unique, the coloured bole shows through as the gold is worn away. The technique was used on carved and good quality compo frames.

Gilding/Gilt

This is a broad term which means 'to cover a surface with a thin layer of gold or a substance that looks like gold'.

Gold leaf

Used on high quality frames, usually between 22 and 23.75 carats, its quality of finish is brilliant. Other types of leaf used in gilding include: silver, palladium, platinum, 12ct white gold, 18ct green gold, 23ct red gold, and 22ct moon gold.

Metal leaf

An alloy of zinc, copper and other metals that is used to replicate gold leaf, is easily recognized by an expert as lacking the mellow hue of gold. This finish was used on mass produced old frames and many reproduction frames. It will tarnish if not sealed. It is also known as Dutch metal/gold, schlag metal, and imitaion gold leaf. It is very inexpensive, aluminium and copper leaf are also used.

Bronze Powder

A very fine metallic powder that when mixed with a binder creates gold paint that is used as finish on mass produced old frames, often turns a dark brown colour with age as it oxidizes.

 

Types and Styles of Frames

Oak frames

These are a very common antique frame, often with a water gilded slip, almost always gilded in silver leaf that is then varnished to look like gold. These frames are ideal for framing old family photos or antique engravings and other prints. Some feature carved detail, this is most often machine carved. There are also quite a few hand carved frames around, these are often small and have an arts and crafts, art nouveau or art deco look about them, designed for photographs, often with stylised floral motifs or scrolling foliage.



  Selection of typical antique oak         Hand carved oak frame
             frame profiles.                      

Veneered frames

are often finished with bird's eye maple or rosewood, and also walnut and other decorative grained woods. They have a lovely rich glow to the surface which is very hard to replicate in reproduction frames, this finish can only come with age. They are ideal for framing sporting, hunting, and other antique prints. The veneer is prone to coming away from the base wood, so finding really good examples is not easy. As a very general rule the later a frame was made then the thinner the veneer. Collectable and sought after frames.

   Maple veneer frame 18th C       
Rosewood veneer frame 19th C

Hogarth frame

This is the general name given to almost any black and gold frame, although frames from Hogarth's period are rare, there are many later versions that are often used to frame antique prints.

Mass produced compo frames

These were the ready made frame of the Victorian and Edwardian day, available in many finishes and styles at a low cost, featuring Rococo, Florentine, and Neo classical style patterns they are the most common seen ornamental antique frame. The patterns used are often to busy and lack the style and balance of well made high quality compo frames, having said that examples in good original condition are still collectable and being antiques can only be expected to increase in demand and value.

 A selection of typical Victorian
 mass produced compo frames.

High quality compo frames

These were designed and made for the wealthier public clients, galleries, and artists, always finished to a high standard with oil and water gilding, they are now collectable and much harder to find than the large volume frames.

    A compo frame gilded with
                gold leaf.

Carved frames

The rarest and most desirable type of frame, they are much harder to find than compo frames, and the higher prices paid reflects this. Whether they are original to a period of history or a later copy they are very collectable and are considered works of art in their own right.

An early 19th Century carved
        and gilded frame.

Modern Reproduction frames

are just that, latter copies of earlier styles, I have seen quite a few of these frames on eBay listed as carved antique gilt frames, when in fact they were made in the last 50 years, are made from compo or resin covered wood and are finished with bronze powder. I must say that I have also seen a number of mirrors listed as carved hand finished frames that are in fact made in China and the far east. Modern reproduction frames vary greatly in quality from the cheap and cheerful imports to excellent quality frames that are made using traditional techniques.

I hope that this brief introduction to antique frames has been of some use, I would welcome  any suggestions or comments to improve this guide and make it more informative to potential frame buyers.

 

 

 

 
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