GUILD IN THE PRESS
New Orleans Homes
and Lifestyles, April 2007
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 radianceor as close as possible.
After you restore it, it never looks brand new, says Blake
Vonder Haar, guild president and conservator-in-charge. But thats
OK, she continues, Some like visceral wear
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
Old vs. New
Antique frames havent 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.
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 Wilners 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. Theres also refinishing which is standard for any
type of frame repair whether its made of carved wood, plaster
It is imperative to maintain the details of the initial frameworktexture
and patternwhen 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.
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 its usually just a time issue, says Vonder
Haar. I dont think weve ever said one is truly beyond
repair. Theyre usually not done because it would be too expensive
to do or because its a contemporary frame which makes more
sense simply to replace rather than restore.
Wilner agrees: We have only turned down projects because the frames
werent worth the effort.
The most valuable piece Wilners has restored was a Dutch frame
for a Rembrandt Van Rijn painting that was recently sold at auction
by Sothebys for $24 million. While many other prized frames arent
worth that much, it isnt 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. Its 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.,
9:30 a.m. 6 p.m.;
Thurs. until 8 p.m.