Antique and Reproduction Picture Frames: Quick Identification Tips for the Beginner

Antique frames have recently seen a surge in popularity.  However, there are times when a high quality reproduction picture frame costs more than an original antique.  There are also times when two seemingly similar antique frames are priced very differently.  But how do you go about valuing a frame if you don’t know what it is?  First you must know that for every antique frame there is likely a reproduction out there.  Next, you must understand how to spot the difference.  Although reading this post won’t make you an immediate frame expert, it will give you some easy to remember tips on what to look out for and how to begin to differentiate high quality from low.

There are three major categories of picture frames that have an antique look.

• Antique 

• High Quality Reproduction

• Low Quality Reproduction

Below are three “cassetta” frames created in a similar American, Arts and Crafts style.

 

 

 

 

• Antique

The first frame, above, is an antique made by Newcomb Macklin in the early 20th century.  This frame and those like it help set the standard of style for early 20th century frame makers.  Founded in 1871, Newcomb Macklin is the oldest continuously running framing company in the United States.   An example of this hand carved and gilded period molding measuring 16” X 21” in excellent condition sold at a Spanierman Gallery/Framefinders auction in May of 2011 for $500.00. A similarly sized Newcomb Macklin frame in the retail market would sell upwards of $1,800.00 depending on the type of leaf, condition, and whether it is attributable to a particular maker or company.

 

 

 

• High Quality Reproduction

The next frame, above, is made by Thanhardt Burger, the company that purchased Newcomb Macklin in 1979.  This frame is also hand-carved and gilded using many of the same techniques as the original.  In the retail market similar frames sell for around $200.00 per linear foot retail (not including any of the other components such as labor, glass, materials or shipping).  An assembled frame measuring 16” X 21” would be priced for around $1,200.00.

• Low Quality Reproduction

The final frame, above, is a lower quality reproduction frame which was “made in China.”  This frame costs around $220 for a 16” X 24”.  Frames of this quality can be made of an inexpensive wood, polyresin, or polyurethane and usually come pre-assembled.

Distinguishing between the frames

So, how do you tell the difference between an authentic antique frame and replica if you don’t have specialty knowledge of design periods or the way frames were made?  There are several telltale signs that most people can easily remember and which may help you find a gem or reject a dud.

                                                

Old Frame                     New Frame

• Age – When examining the back of the frame it should look old.  This means that the color of the wood should be dark and uneven.  There might even be lighter areas where an old label was located and later removed.  In the same way an old piece of wood furniture might oxidize and darken over time, so does the exposed wood back of an antique frame.  If the wood is light or if it looks new, then the frame is not old. The back of the frame might also be evenly stained or painted.  If this is the case, it is likely a newer frame.

• Labels – Check the markings on the back. Not all older frames have labels but some do and if you find one it can both help you date your frame and add to the value.  These labels can be paper, stamped, stenciled or engraved metal.  It is important to mention that new framing galleries often use labels too. Those labels should look newer but if you can’t tell, do an internet search.  Either way, the label should help you date the frame.

• Weight – Pick the frame up and test the weight! Antique frames and high quality reproduction frames are generally pretty heavy. Antique frames and high quality reproduction frames are made of solid wood rails and either carved or have applied decoration.  Traditionally, this decoration is made of a combination of chalk and resin called “composition”. The composition is coated with gesso and then gilded.  Today’s manufacture of high- quality, antique reproduction frames employ the same techniques.  However, the lower quality copies do not.  These frames tend to be lighter and often feel like they might be hollow.  For example, Polyresin, a material commonly seen in the manufacture of new reproduction frames is employed in the manufacture of the lower-end quality frames by heating the material and then using a mold of (sometimes of an old frame) to create the form.  Polyresin frames can be similar in appearance to fiberglass and the surface texture allows for the addition of a metallic or metal leaf finish.  Polyresin frames are much lighter than frames made of wood and “compo” and when you pick them up you will likely feel the difference in quality.

• Surface

1.) “leaf lines”.  Gold and silver leaf come in very thin sheets and are applied delicately .  When the layers of the leaf overlap, these are called “leaf lines”.  Many antique frames and high quality reproduction frames have these leaf lines.  Cheaper frames do not. In the photo above, the leaf line is the bright area of gold on the outer edge of the frame.

2.) “Brassy“ appearance vs. a warm aged appearance.  It is true that antique and high quality reproduction frames can have different tones.  However, these tones generally have depth and luster that is not present with the lower quality reproduction frames.  In contrast, the reproduction frames often have a brassy-gold finish.  The finish itself is usually very even throughout the surface of the frame and does not have the richness and quality seen in the older frames.  In the image above, the frame on the left is polyresin with a gold painted finish while the frame on the right is antique with a gilded finish.

3.) Surface decoration. Look again at the surface decoration above.  Molded decoration on polyresin (left side) and other low quality frames does not display the same detail or fluidity as with hand carved or gesso frames. Often, the details on lower quality reproduction frames appear “stuck on” or pressed from molds (because they were!).