Eli Wilner, The Art of the Frame
“When the right frame is united with a painting, it’s an ‘aha’ moment that goes beyond words,” says Master Framer Eli Wilner. “It’s an experience.”
During the 40 years that Wilner’s eponymous New York City gallery has been in business, he has had the privilege of experiencing thousands of such “aha” moments.
In addition to framing the world’s masterworks for prime private clients, Wilner has provided antique frames or produced replicas for The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Smithsonian Institution and the White House as well as Sotheby’s and Christie’s.
It was his team that recreated the mammoth eagle-crowned gilded frame for Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze’s 1851 painting Washington Crossing the Delaware, the star of the Met’s American Wing. And it was his gallery that procured the antique frame for the portrait of Sheik Zayed for his namesake museum in Dubai and two others for the new Louvre Abu Dhabi.
Wilner’s gallery, which sells antiques for $6,500 to over $1 million and hand-carved replicas for $2,500 to over $2 million, is the Rolls-Royce of the framing field.
“I’ve always been more expensive than any other framer,” he says. “There are reasons for this – I’m obsessed with perfection, I offer a legendary level of service, and I’m discrete – I create pseudonyms for my clients to protect their confidentiality, even, at times, from my own staff.”
Wilner’s frames are guaranteed against accidents and wear and tear for life, and if they are not completed on time – a scenario that has never happened – clients are not charged.
Wilner goes to great lengths (and heights) to select the proper frame for each artwork. Drawing from his collection of 4,000 antique American and European frames dating from the 15th to the 20th centuries as well as a global database collected over four decades, Wilner employs a sophisticated formula — time period, artist’s intent and the aesthetics of scale, form and color – to create the most appropriate pairing.
“Each artwork, regardless of when it was completed, should appear as if the artist just returned from the framer,” he says.
Recently, a private client commissioned Eli Wilner & Co. to create a replica frame for a copy of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa.
“The client recreated the painting as it was right when it came out of da Vinci’s studio,” Wilner says. “It didn’t show its history — there was no wear and tear or faded pigments. In a museum in Spain, we found a frame that da Vinci had used on one of his paintings and duplicated it minus its discoloration. The result when the new painting and the new frame came together was amazing.”
In another case, Wilner framed a $20-million, 6-foot-long 19th-century still-life with an antique from his collection.
“The frame was identical to one the artist used in his lifetime,” Wilner says. “I’ve never seen another one that survived.”
Wilner’s largest and most celebrated framing project, the Met’s Washington Crossing the Delaware, took more than two years to complete.
The painting’s original frame had been lost to time, and all Wilner and his team had to go on was an 1864 black-and-white photograph taken by Mathew Brady.
“It was difficult to discern all the details,” Wilner says, “so there was a lot of intellectual guessing and research that we had to do. It took at least 10 times before we were able to satisfy the curators and all agree that it was right.”
Wilner also does a lot of framing projects for small museums and historical institutions.
“It’s always been my mission to help them,” he says. “I reduce the cost drastically – that’s my charitable contribution to the art world.”
Aesthetics aside, frames inevitably enhance the value of the artwork they border.
“An excellent frame will add 5 to 10 percent to the price,” Wilner says, adding that the world’s most expensive antique frame, a 17th-century Russian example hand-carved in amber, sold at auction for nearly $1 million 20 years ago. “On masterworks, this could mean millions. The stakes are high – that’s why auction houses ask me to provide frames.”
In 1978, when Eli Wilner & Co. opened on the Upper East Side, the art world didn’t recognize the art of antique frames. In fact, in a quest to be more contemporary, major museums routinely discarded period frames, some of which were designed by the likes of iconic artists like James Abbott McNeill Whistler and Charles Pendergast.
Today, the best examples of these “name” frames sell for 10s, even hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Wilner rescued them from the trash bins of Manhattan’s Museum Mile – and obscurity. He started hanging them on the walls empty, one inside the other, like objets d’art, or turning them into mirrors and trays. In 1990, he sponsored the Met’s first-ever exhibition of empty frames.
Wilner remains passionate about his work.
“I have a master’s degree in fine arts and always thought that I would be a painter,” he says. “But framing became my art, and it has made me a collaborator with great works of art.”
For more information, see Eliwilner.com.