Why would anyone pay pounds 33,000 for a frame without a painting? Gera ldine Norman on the collectors who are wising up to the fact that surroundings do matter

Geraldine Norman
Saturday 08 July 1995 23:02

THESE DAYS the savvy art dealer makes money from the picture frame, not just the picture inside it. Antique frames are often worth more than the picture itself. With a little self-deprecating smile, a dealer recently explained to me: "My client was delighted when I sold a picture on to him for what it had cost me - but, of course, I kept the frame." The dealer knew the frame was worth around pounds 5,000.

The general public hasn't woken up to the fact that it really matters financially what goes around a picture. A mid-18th-century English frame, carved in the grand manner of architect William Kent, made pounds 33,000 at a Christie's auction in 1989 - the top auction price on record.

A vast collection of frames, 2,000 in all, formed by the gentle German refugee Paul Levi, now 75, is to be dispersed in five Christie's auctions starting next week and ending in April. They range in date from the 15th to the 20th century, and provide an insight into some of the other eccentricities of the genre. For example, framing an Italian Renaissance painting in an Italian Renaissance frame - a pairing any layperson might expect - is a relatively new idea. Until recently it was customary to put a painting in any frame that complimented it aesthetically.

Compared to other stylish old furnishings, picture frames are also pretty cheap. The oldest in Tuesday's sale, a 15th-century tabernacle frame - a plain, 10in carved rectangle with a stepped base - is valued at pounds 500- pounds 700. The most spectacular in the auction, a Venetian 16th- century carved and gilded cassetta (box-like) frame, almost 3ft high, is valued at pounds 15,000-pounds 20,000. Most carry estimates in the pounds 500-pounds 5,000 range, but with such a huge volume of frames coming to auction there will be bargains.

The focus on the picture frame as a collector's item is a very new phenomenon - only in 1988 did Christie's start holding frame sales. But there are already many addicts. Some put pictures in them, of course, and some mirrors; others just hang empty frames on the wall.

"It looks marvellous," says David Thomson, the connoisseur son of Lord Thomson of Fleet. He was the first empty frame hanger I had bumped into, and is one of the world's leading frame addicts. He recently donated 240 to the Ontario Museum in Canada but has kept back a collection of several hundred for his own use.

Paul Levi was the pioneer in this curious field. Born in Leipzig in 1919, he was sent to England at the age of 16 to escape the Nazis, and became London's leading picture framer in the post-war years. He began buying frames "as soon as I had enough money" and became fascinated by disentangling the story of their origins and history. Which styles were used in which country at which date? Which were carved in capital cities and which in the provinces? Answering these kinds of questions required the acquisition of more and more frames.

Levi fondly remembers a "breakthrough" week he spent in Holland in 1949, when he realised you could date 16th-century Dutch frames from the profiles of the mouldings. He went round museums drawing the profiles of frames from dated pictures. He later became a consultant to major museums across Europe and America, studying the frames on pictures and advising on their date and suitability. He has provided both the Metropolitan Museum in New York and the National Gallery in London with a complete check-list of the dates and styles of their frames. He describes it, with characteristic modesty, as "a handlist for people to look at before they chuck a frame away."

Levi's collection had a practical purpose. The frames served as models which he could show to clients and copy or adapt when carving new frames. They didn't have to be pristine, and many are fairly battered. As the collection and his interest grew, he dreamed it might form the basis of the first "frame museum" and began to buy frames as possible exhibits. In the 1980s he found several potential backers - his frames might, for instance, have joined the Reves collection of French frames at the Dallas museum - but all the schemes melted away with the recession. Now Levi is closing his workshop in Chiswick, west London, and has no space to store the collection. So he has decided to sell.

With the long-term view of a 75-year-old, Levi comments with humour on changing fashions in picture framing. The current trend among museums and collectors is to try and put Old Master paintings into frames typical of the place and time at which they were painted - Dutch 17th-century pictures into Dutch 17th-century frames, and so on. If, as is frequently the case, no frame of the correct style and date can be found, a collector will commission an exact copy of a frame of the correct period.

"In America they are even beginning to put Impressionists into 19th- century frames of the correct year for the painting," says Levi. "If they could see it, Pissarro and Co would come alive again from shock. We know from letters that they hated contemporary frames. They look absolutely dreadful. It hurts the eyes."

By a curious twist of fate, the 19th-century connoisseurs who put heavy gold frames around their pictures in the 1880s, threw away the 18th-century ones. The impoverished Impressionists bought these lovely Louis XIV and Louis XV frames for a song. Ever since, French 18th-century frames - with their frolicsome carving or gesso moulding, lightly gilded - or copies of them have been considered the correct thing for Impressionist pictures.

"The same happened with Picasso and Spanish frames," Levi explains. "Old frames, from the 17th century even, were the cheapest, so he bought them and used them. That is now considered the correct style for Picassos."

There have been three eras of framing fashion in the 20th century. First, the age of innocence, when a frame was chosen for a picture becase it looked good with it, irrespective of date and style. Then came what might be called "the Levi era", when it was thought correct to use a framing style typical of the period of the painting but adapt it to your own aesthetic vision. Levi and Fritz Frederick Polak - a Czech who came to London from Berlin just before the war - used old frames as models but improved on them. "Polak had been a painter before he fled Czechoslovakia," says Levi. "There is nobody of his sensibility around today. He had good models but adapted the designs and made the frames into luxury items using his ability with colour and decoration."

The last ten years have seen another shift in fashion. No "improving" on old models is acceptable in serious collector circles. Frames of the correct style and date must now be minutely researched and very precisely copied.

A leading impresario of the new fashion is Paul Mitchell of Bond Street, central London. He has a database of 200,000 photographs of framed pictures, and makes montages for clients showing the range of historically correct frame styles for a painting. Consulted recently by the Art Institute of Chicago on how to frame a series of Monet "Haystacks", he was able to produce a photograph of Monet surrounded by Louis XIII frames, provide photomontages of the haystack paintings framed in this way, and carve modern replicas for the museum.

Mitchell, and Arnold Wiggins of Bury Street in London's St James's, have inherited Levi's mantle. Both have large stocks of old frames, and workshops where they produce very high-quality replicas of historic styles. Mitchell, however, is also a propagandist and writes extensively on the subject. He and art historian Lynn Roberts have written a 120,000-word history of frame making for the Macmillan Dictionary of Art which will be published next year - the first comprehensive reference book on the subject.

The Macmillan book will provide a boost to the market, which is already expanding under the influence of museum exhibitions with scholarly catalogues. There was an exhibition of 19th-century frames at the Musee d'Orsay in Paris in 1989, followed by Italian Renaissance frames at the Metropolitan, New York, in 1990. A Dutch exhibition of frames, first seen in Amsterdam, reopens at the Kunstforum in Vienna on 24 August. Next year, London's National Portrait Gallery will mount Britain's first major frame exhibition, covering 500 years of frames on British portraits. The Levi sales are well timed to cash in on this new interest.

! Christie's auction of fine picture frames takes place on Tuesday 11 July at 10.30am; viewing today from 2pm-3.30pm, Monday 9am-4.30pm.

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