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What's in a Frame? The Picture. That's the Problem

A 600-year-old sculpture, hand-carved from rare wood and covered in gold? Impressive, and invisible, when the painting it frames is screaming, "Look at me!"

It's the sorry fate of antique frames -- no matter how splendid their craftsmanship, they're overshadowed by the art they display. Always the bridesmaid ... and often underpriced. At the highest end of the market, a frame is only as valuable as the painting it surrounds.

"Let's assume a certain artist who's very hot drops out of favor completely, and he had a certain type of frame that he liked," says Eli Wilner, president of Eli Wilner & Co. , a frame gallery on the Upper East Side that supplies collectors and institutions such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art. (Wilner made the 1,400-pound frame for Leutze's "Washington Crossing the Delaware" at the Met.) "That frame would go down in value immediately," he says.

A whole style can fall from favor, too. One recent casualty: Rococo frames. The style is "ornate and very busy at the same time," says David Mandel, president of the House of Heydenryk , a frame company in New York. "For a modern aesthetic, it's kind of out of favor." In contrast, frames in the 17th-century Dutch"ripple style" are popular, because they can tastefully highlight blockbuster 20th-century art. "I've framed Cy Twomblys and de Koonings in those frames," Mandel says.

How much will collectors spend on a frame? Wilner says up to 10% of the painting's cost. His own antique frames range from $35,000 to $85,000. Occasionally these prices make the frame more expensive than the picture. "That often happens if my clients have chosen to frame portraits of family members but insist the frame [be] good enough to hang with their actual collection," Wilner says.

If you have the money to treat Grandma like a Pissarro , shouldn't you? Well, what was that part about frame prices rising and falling with the market?

"Frames get swapped out all the time, depending on the vagaries of fashion," says George Baker, owner of George Baker Picture Frames in New York. "There are trends in the upper league of the business for which people pay enormous premiums."

You know, maybe Grandma doesn't need a gilt frame. You never really liked her anyway.

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