Picture frames entered the realm of fine art collectibles in the 1990s. "The antique frame has become so valuable that it can be separated from the painting it surrounds, or even the mirror, and it can be appreciated for its own independent aesthetic," said New York frame dealer Eli Wilner in the introduction to Antique American Frames Identification and Price Guide. Old frames previously tossed in the dump heap are now being fought over by dealers from trendy Manhattan art galleries. Vintage frames date from the 1700s into the 20th century. Identifying and dating antique frames is an art form in itself.
Check on the back of the antique frame for a maker's mark and date. Many artist-craftsman who made early frames (just like violin makers) signed and dated their frames. Also look for labels by the frame companies. This will give you the company name and location. The company may still be in existence or you may find the time period they were in operation in old city directories.
Look at the artwork that is in the frame (such as a vintage print). Hold the magnifying glass over the bottom right and left areas of the print and look carefully for a date. Sometimes the date will be below the artist's name and will only be indicated by the last two digits, such as "92" for 1892. If you locate a date for the print, this will give a general idea of the era and decade in which the frame was made.
Study the period look of the frame. Antique picture frames followed the making of furniture. For instance, if the frame is made of wide, flat plank boards of fine-grained warm yellow oak, it fits into the period of the Arts & Crafts movement in America. Estimate the period look of your frame to establish a general date.
Look at the materials the antique frame is constructed of to establish a date. As picture framing evolved, new techniques for embellishing and creating frames developed. An example of this was the introduction of heavy molded plaster gilded frames during the Victorian era. However, the material is not the only factor in dating gilded frames. Finer versions of gilded frames appear in Europe much earlier.
Use Eli Wilner's price guide to picture frames for frame comparison and date. If you think you have a valuable frame as seen in his book, contact a high-end frame dealer or gallery owner for advice on confirming the date in the event it may be worth a great deal of money.
According to Eli Wilner, some antique frames can be worth as much as $10,000 each.
Watch out for fakes. Picture frames, like other collectible antiques, have become victims of mass reproductions.