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How to Inspect an Antique Picture Frame

March 27, 2020

3 minute read

The Versos of Antique Frames
The Versos of Antique Frames

Antique picture frames, with their intricate designs, evoke time past when craftsmanship was fine art unto itself. Like it affects fine wines, the passage of time adds character to and increases the value of antique frames. In some cases, an antique frame can be worth more than the art collection it surrounds.

But how do you determine between an antique frame, a reproduction frame, or both? Following these four steps will help you inspect and classify your picture frame:

1. Look at the Back

Turn the frame to its back, or verso, and observe it carefully. If it is warped, fit with old hardware, or has wormholes, then it is probably old. Most picture framers do not duplicate warping or wormholes on the back of a new frame even if they distress its front to look old.

2. Identify the Material

Is the frame made of plaster or is it a wood frame? Plaster or composition frames became popular in the early 19th century. Therefore, if a frame is made of plaster rather than carved wood, then it is probably not older than the 19th century, even if its design seems to belong to an earlier period. For example, a Louis XV antique frame constructed of plaster, or compo, could not have been made in the 18th century.

3. Search for Gilding Lines

You may think that a gilded frame must be a valuable antique. Think again. Does the frame’s lovely patina originate from real gold or less precious metal? Not every gold finish is the real thing. What you see might be a bronze paint finish, which is often used on its own or to camouflage damaged gilding. Bronze paint is applied thickly, so you can usually detect it by its visible brushstrokes and, in time, it discolors to a dull brown. Another inexpensive substitute for gold is a metal leaf, which you can spot rather easily due to its orange hue.

Real gold leaf, by contrast, does not tarnish with age, has an unmistakable sheen, and is applied by hand using small, 22-karat sheets over gesso and bole. Sometimes the sheets create faint lines on the frame where they overlap. These gilding lines may be a hallmark of a valuable frame.

Inspect an Antique Frame


4. Look for a Classic Shape

Can the frame be dated to a certain period by its style and design, or are these features a homage to frames of that period? While the frame’s style and design can be helpful in determining its age, note that many designs were made over long periods of time or reproduced in later times, so you should be cautious of reading too much into these criteria.

The tabernacle frame design is a case in point: ancient churches featured tabernacle frames, but not every tabernacle frame is antique. In the 19th century, for instance, American architect Stanford White created his own interpretation of that classic frame design.
Similarly, the Italian cassetta frame was introduced in the 13th century, but versions of it continued to be made through the 19th and 20th centuries.

An old, wooden frame that is genuinely gilded with real gold leaf, and well-designed, may be valuable. These frames can also suit a variety of period oil paintings and contemporary artworks.

Are you wondering if a frame you own or wish to collect is a valuable antique? Do you have a damaged frame and need help determining if it is worth repairing? Lowy frame and art restoration experts can help you appraise your frame and maintain its historical integrity while preserving its value. Reframe your works of art, or convert your antique picture frame into a decorative wall mirror for a more architectural touch.

For a comprehensive art conservation assessment, ask Lowy and find our select projects here on our website.