When was the last time you thought about picture frames? In the world of digital photography, you probably don’t buy frames as often as you once did. When you do buy a frame, you’re likely focused on simply getting one that fits your picture perfectly. There are all kinds of frames out there — from the sleek and minimal to the ostentatious to the novelty ones in which we keep cute photos of our pets. It may surprise you, then, to learn that an old picture frame can actually be quite valuable. Wondering if your antique frames may be worth big bucks? Here’s what you need to know about the frame game.
What constitutes an antique picture frame?
Unfortunately, those basic but functional picture frames you can easily purchase online or from a department store are unlikely to be worth a fortune. However, if you have any antique picture frames that are family heirlooms, or you’ve been lucky enough to stumble upon an old frame at a thrift store or yard sale, it may have more value. According to Rebecca Rau, a fourth-generation antique specialist at the New Orleans purveyor M.S. Rau who shared her expertise with MarthaStewart.com, an item must be 100 years or older to qualify as an antique. Anything more recent is technically considered vintage. Vintage items may still be worth money, but because antiques are older they are rarer and thus more sought after.
Your picture frame, then, must be from 1923 or earlier to be considered antique. According to the experts at 1stDibs (an online marketplace for high-end used goods), antique picture frames “are regarded as high-value collectibles and can often be seen in exhibits without canvases, as art pieces on their own.” This may sound strange — who’d want to look at empty picture frames? — but it’s true. The Getty Museum in LA and the National Portrait Gallery in London have both previously featured exhibits of beautiful antique picture frames.
1stDibs notes that antique frames are often made of wood, and come in many different shapes. On their site, prices for antique frames range from $89 (for a tiny Victorian frame) to a whopping $24,000 (for a 29 x 26 ½ -inch Spanish Colonial frame featuring a gorgeously carved giltwood design).
What makes an antique picture frame valuable?
If you have an antique picture frame and want to determine whether it’s worth something, you’ll want to look for these qualities, according to the Victorian Frame Company.
- Quality of Wood. The Victorian Frame Company notes that, while the frame should be in overall good condition, you should check for uneven staining and dark coloring at the back of the frame — this is a sign of the natural oxidation that comes with age, and it may indicate that your frame is antique and thus valuable.
- Labels. Finding a label or insignia is a great way to help you determine the age and value of your frame. While not all antique picture frames will have labels, you should always look at the back of the frame to check. You might just find it has the name of the craftsman and the date the frame was made. Deborah Davis, author of The Secret Lives of Frames, says that American framers of note in the late 19th and early 20th century whose works are particularly valuable today include Stanford White, Hermann Dudley Murphy, Charles Prendergast, and Frederick Harer. If your frame has a name and date on the back, it may be worth researching and potentially having it appraised — even if it’s not one of the names Davis mentions.
- Weight. Antique picture frames are of a much higher quality than frames today. Most frames these days are light, and may be made of plastic or metal. Because valuable antique frames are often made of wood, they are usually on the heavier side.
What are the styles of antique picture frames?
When determining the value of your picture frame, it helps to know what era it is from. Here are the main styles of antique picture frames, as listed by the Victorian Frame Company.
- Baroque style. This 17th-century style is big on drama, and frames often feature carved medallions, shells, leaves, and flowers at the corners.
- Rococo style. This style, from the 18th century, is known for its fanciful, swirling designs.
- Victorian style. These 19th-century frames were produced around the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, so they often incorporate more prefabricated parts instead of being wholly handcrafted work. They are typically decorated with elaborate moldings.
- Neoclassical style. These frames stand apart for their simpler designs, such as molded squares, rounded profiles, and straight lines. They were popular in the 19th century.
20th century styles may also be valuable, even if ones from the late 1920s onward are not technically antique. Picture frames made in the earlier part of the century, in Art Nouveau and Art Deco styles, are particularly prized for their elegant, sleek designs that still feel fresh today.
The Bottom Line
Whether you’re gazing at photographs of your great-grandparents or an old piece of art, don’t discount the potential value of the frame. Frame prices vary widely, but a historical piece can net hundreds or even thousands of dollars depending on its artistry, age, and condition.
And if you find a gorgeous antique frame complete with a painting and want to know how much the art is worth, check out our guide for appraising thrift store paintings. It’s a rare occurrence, but finding an antique picture frame and a valuable painting could win you a pretty penny.
Read on to learn about more surprisingly valuable vintage pieces: