Eli Wilner was just six years old when he first became aware of something the art world commonly overlooked: the beauty – and the value – of a picture frame. “My great-uncle was a well-known art collector,” he says, “and he would put my childish pastels in antique frames and hang them alongside his Modiglianis and Chagalls. It took me years to realize I wasn’t a great master, but I learned very early on how a frame can transform the way we look at a picture.”
Forty-six years later, Wilner has become a leading authority on the art of framing. At the rather Dickensian headquarters of Eli Wilner & Company – a former illegal gambling den on Manhattan’s Upper East Side – his impeccably dressed figure guides visitors through his collection of over 3,000 antique American and European frames, mostly 19th-century, with the earliest dating back to the 1600s. He also has a 10,000-square-foot restoration studio in Long Island City, where carvers and gilders not only buff up original frames, but also create historically accurate replicas. Wilner’s individual frames can sell for up to $250,000, and his clients include The White House, The Metropolitan Museum of Art and The Smithsonian (and most of the country’s other major museums), as well as auction houses Sotheby’s and Christie’s. He has over 25 employees, and expects to generate over $10 million this year. “My business typifies the way the luxury goods market has changed,” he says. “I think of frames as sculptures that hang on the wall, and there’s a new appetite out there for artisanal, hand-crafted one-offs. What we do is the antithesis of mass production. There’s been a market shift from high-tech to high-touch.”
Hunting and Collecting
Wilner’s products weren’t always so desirable – he started collecting in the early 1980s when art dealers would throw antique frames out on the street as trash. “They were considered junk,” he grins. “No one wanted to spend money on restoring them; it was cheaper to reframe paintings with reproductions. So I’d take a taxi and stroll Madison Avenue, snatching them up. They were thrown in dumpsters, or just lying in the gutter.”
After amassing about 300 examples, Wilner quit his job as a painting restorer and framer in a Manhattan gallery, and opened for business in his rather cramped Upper East Side walk-up in 1983. “Friends, family and colleagues in the art world all thought I was insane,” he says. “I’d been making a splendid living, but I was daydreaming about frames all the time. I actually couldn’t sleep at night – I was consumed by this vision, so the fact that I had no resources or employees was the least of my worries.”
Initially, Wilner says he was met with ridicule. “The best line I ever got was from this woman, who said, in an outraged voice, ‘Why are you trying to sell me a used frame?’’’ But in his first year, he did $200,000-worth of business purely by word-of-mouth (indeed, such was the commotion at Wilner’s apartment, with the constant logjam of museum curators, dealers and buyers cramming into his rooms, that his landlord kicked him out). Then, through the 1980s, the value of American paintings from the 1800s by the likes of Winslow Homer, John Frederick Church and Sanford Gifford soared into the millions, and the demand for period frames began to gather pace. Things eventually came to a head in 1990, when The Met featured an exhibit of antique frames. “That changed people’s view of antique frames overnight,” smiles Wilner. “Suddenly, people began to realize the truth of something Edouard Manet used to say: ‘Without a proper frame, the painting loses 100 percent.’ Collectors and museums started demanding original frames. I was lucky; I’d hit on the right moment to make that connection. And then we hit the savings and loan crisis of the early 1990s, where collectors stopped buying paintings, but instead were reframing what they already had. So I was up and running.” The market for frames that Wilner was instrumental in creating means that he doesn’t run across nearly so many in dumpsters anymore (the record for a single frame at auction is $947,000, for a 17th-century amber frame at Sotheby’s in 1991). He now keeps a level inventory, selling and buying around 300 frames a year. But since the early 1990s, the restoration and replication side of his business has become more of a focus. “It started when The Met approached us about reframing a few pictures, and it sort of ballooned from there,” he says.
Today, Wilner & Company’s biggest project is actually one of the most complex reframings in the history of The Met: the carving of a 3,000-pound frame for Emanuel Leutze’s iconic 21-by-12-foot painting “Washington Crossing the Delaware,” which will replicate the long-lost original recently rediscovered in a 144-year-old Matthew Brady photograph. “This is actually the most requested picture in The Met, and the one every schoolkid sits in front of at one time or another, so it’s about as prestigious as it gets,” says Wilner. Over in the Long Island City workshop, his team, led by master wood-carver Felix Teran, is about halfway through the three-year project. “The painting is surmounted by a giant eagle surrounded by ribbons and an arsenal of musketry, which we’re recreating from scratch,” Wilner continues. “It’s fantastic to be able to keep these old artisanal traditions alive. Felix was born into a family of wood-carvers who hail from a whole town of carvers in Ecuador; when he’s finished, the gilders will get to work with about 12,500 3.5-inch square sheets of gold leaves.” How does Wilner find – and keep – his arcane craftsmen? “I search the world for them,” he says. “And I pay them well.”
Wilner’s allegiance to the hand-made one-off means he’s careful not to dilute his name, and he’s turned down approaches from large chains to establish a more mass market framing service. “I want to stay high-end niche – that’s where my interest lies,” he states. The rest of the world is catching up with Wilner in seeing frames as works of art in their own right. “They’re all unique, and I think there’s a real hunger for idiosyncrasy in the age of the mega-brand. Mind you,” he says, “I actually have framed frames at home. I’m not sure anyone else is ready to go that far just yet.”
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