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Getting Framed

Edward Balfour and Justin Wessels have turned their—and others'—attention to antique American frames.

It wasn't so long ago that Edward Balfour could find exquisite antique frames in dumpsters on Manhattan's Upper East Side, discarded by none other than the big New York auction houses, museums, and galleries. "If the buyer of a painting was from, say, Japan," explains Balfour, "and wanted the piece in a hurry, the frame was simply thrown out to make shipping easier and faster. Frames were so underappreciated." Well, no more. Now dealers and private collectors willingly turn over their antique frames to Balfour, to be sold by him at auction. Along with partner Justin Wessels, Balfour has established Framefinders Inc., the premier—indeed the only—auction house in America devoted exclusively to frames.

Why wouldn't the major players sell the frames themselves? Europeans have for years held sales of frames, but never those of American origin and rarely anything more modern than 18th-century. "They consider nineteenth-century replica," says Balfour, "and are astonished at the prices commanded by American frames." Whereas Europeans view the relatively simple American frames as stripped-down plain-Janes, Balfour sees elegance in the pared-down New World aesthetic. And so do his customers.

In its four years in business, Framefinders has established new auction records for antique frames from the Hudson River School, 20th-century Arts and Crafts movement (particularly those by the firm Foster Bros.), and noted makers such as Frederick Harer, Hermann Dudley Murphy, Frederick Loeser, and Charles Prendergast. The latter's better-known brother, painter Maurice, would occasionally put down his paintbrush and pick up a mallet and chisel to lend a hand at woodcarving when orders backed up.

Most prized of all are frames by Stanford White, partner in the turn-of-the-century architecture firm McKim, Mead & White. "White designed each one personally," says Balfour, "and kept a very close eye on his framemakers. He worked with up to ten at a time to reduce the chance of any single craftsman becoming expert at copying his designs." The architect, a great patron of the arts as well as a stickler for detail, never charged for his frames, instead presenting them as gifts to clients and artist friends. What he did for love now commands significant money: a high of $43,700, thus far, at Framefinders' November 2001 sale.

Balfour manages to scare up about one Stanford White frame per auction, but establishing record prices—the common currency and PR generator of auction houses—was never his and Wessels' primary intent. Rather, it was to make antique frames accessible and affordable. Serious collectors, museum representatives, and art dealers all attend Framefinders auctions, but so do designers and decorators, the casual collector, and the homeowner in need of a mirror over the fireplace.

When Balfour was learning the trade (moving from apprentice to gilder to main buyer for a noted frame dealer in New York), the business of frames operated in the shadows, especially in terms of markup. "Prices there exceeded two hundred fifty thousand dollars for some frames," says Balfour, "but the most I ever spent to procure the frame in the first place was ten thousand dollars, and on average it was half that." Now the average sale price at a Framefinders auction is half that again. But $2,500 is a figure whose very modesty makes Balfour and Wessels proud. It means that for every record-setting sale they may have introduced two dozen buyers to their first antique frame. It also means the partners need to find a lot of inventory. Initially the task required not just legwork but significant mileage. Prior to Framefinders' first sale, Balfour stormed every barn door and attic hatch between Bar Harbor and Beverly Hills to ferret out 150 or so worthy frames. After the sale, the little company was inundated with calls. Now Balfour turns down 15 out of 20 frames that come to him.

With seven biannual auctions under their belts, Balfour and Wessels have established themselves, and Framefinders, as the source for antique frames. In their Upper East Side gallery they re-gesso, re-clay, and re-gild and can take a mold of any frame to create a replica. Balfour and Wessels also advise about matting, sizing, hanging, and fitting a frame with a mirror.

But Framefinders' most valuable service would have to be the subtle art of mating picture and frame. Says Balfour, "selecting the right frame for a painting is a matter of bringing style, period, and aesthetic together. Done correctly, it's an investment that can pay off handsomely. A million-dollar Hudson River School painting, for instance, can see its value increase by twenty percent with the addition of a proper fluted cove frame, still a relatively modest expense at fifteen to twenty thousand." Whether their customers invest $20,000 or $2,000, Balfour and Wessels are happy to have contributed to frames being better recognized for what they are: works of art in themselves.

At 454 East 84th Street, New York; 212-396-3896; www.framefinders.com.