Gilded, or gold leaf frames have endured in their appeal and value throughout history. Despite shapeshifting in style and ornament to suit prevailing sensibilities and tastes, the gilded frame remains iconic in both its ability to convey grandeur and command a viewer’s attention. It is this unflagging popularity over several centuries that has yielded countless examples of gilded frames to adorn both artworks and mirrors.
Material is Telling
Above: inside the legendary frame workshop of Eli Wilner. Wilner produced frames for the masterpieces belonging to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Photo: Courtesy of AD and Guernsey’s Auction
The material a frame is made from can help determine its age more clearly than the style of ornamentation it is adorned with, especially as historical styles might have been repeated or reproduced even after their popularity waned. If the frame is crafted from plaster or Compo, rather than purely wood-carved, then it was likely built no earlier than the 19th century. Earlier frames were made entirely from hand carved-wood. If you are unsure whether a frame is solid wood or plaster, its weight can give you a clue.
Identifying Real Gold Leaf
Above: the left frame is finished in metal leaf and has an orange hue as compared to the gold leaf gilded frame on the right. Image courtesy of Lowy
The gold-hued finish of gilded mirrors undeniably conveys value. Real gold leaf is hand-applied to frames with a process of painstakingly placing sheets of 22-karat gold leaf directly to the frame’s surface. It is the inherent value of the material that makes these antiques so precious. However not all frames that appear to be gold leaf truly are. Some antique or vintage frames are gilded in a less precious metal than gold.
To determine if a frame is in fact real gold leaf, look to its sheen or hue. Because gold leaf doesn’t tarnish, it will maintain its luster, despite its age. One less precious alternative to gold leaf is a bronze paint finish. This finish has a gold effect but is more or less painted onto the frame using a brush. This is also something that has been commonly used to disguise damaged gilding more economically during a restoration. To spot a bronze finish, look for visible brushstrokes that are thick. Over time, a bronze finish can also appear discolored and brownish in tone.
If a finish appears more on the orange side, this may be another inexpensive imposter: metal leaf. When trying to identify real gold leaf, look closely for gilding lines. These are faint lines where the gold leaf sheets overlapped during application and will indicate that your antique frame has value.
Examine the Back
Above: Opulent 19th Century French Louis XV Style Gold Leaf, Giltwood and Plaster Frame. Image Courtesy of 1st Dibs
Identifying the age of a frame to determine if it is antique, or vintage can be challenging. If a frame is over 100 years old, it is typically considered to be antique, a status that unsurprisingly ascribes higher value to a piece.
It is because of this that reproductions are often intentionally distressed and made to look more mature than they truly are. One simple way to ascertain the age of a frame is by examining its back, or verso.
Here, telltale signs of an antique include age related issues like wormholes, warping, or even old hardware. Because these are challenging to mimic, a distressed reproduction frame is far less likely to have these indicators of age.
Image Courtesy of AD
While styles of ornamentation can indicate that an antique frame was created during a specific period in history, it is important to keep in mind that styles were popular over long spans of time and that reproductions were incredibly common. Because of this, style alone will not pin a frame to a certain origination.
Image Courtesy of AD
In short, if you are investigating a frame that you are considering buying, or have recently acquired, keep these questions in mind:
Does it appear older than 100 years?
Is it carved from solid wood?
Do you see gilding lines?
Does it have a gold luster, rather than a brownish tarnish or yellow hue?
If you answered yes, then your frame may indeed be a valuable antique. With more research, or the help of a skilled appraiser, you can learn more about the history, age and value of your gilded mirror.
Regardless if it’s a hand carved Louis XV mirror, or a classical vintage reproduction from the 1950’s, it will undeniably add, in the least, plenty of visual value to your space.
Do you have an antique or vintage gilded mirror you’d like restored?
Our experts are able to repair damaged gold leaf, or even add a gilded finish for the first time to your framed mirror or artwork. Get in touch with a member of our team to learn more.