Despite higher prices overall, the value of a frame remains tied to the value of artwork from the corresponding period—and while modern and contemporary art has seen soaring prices over the last decade, older works have not had the same luck. According to the Mei Moses World All Art Index, between 2002 and 2012 post-war and contemporary art gained a compounded annualized rate of return of 11.6 percent. In the same period,
paintings gained just 3.3 percent and American paintings only 1 percent. The recession hit the frame market particularly hard, according to Wilner. “The year 2008 was a horrible time for the industry and the 19th century got really hurt. Both European and American painting values plummeted,” he said.
Salazar has seen the number of antique frame sellers in the United States dwindling, down to around 9,000 from an original count of 20,000. “People just don’t want antiques anymore,” he noted. Although he follows industry developments, Salazar no longer supports himself through frame sales—instead, he uses real estate investments to fund what he describes as a “passion” rather than a business.
Wilner said the frame market has recovered somewhat since a particularly low point in 2013. “Thankfully, there’s renewed interest,” he said. But he says the industry is increasingly focused on lower price points, like works in the $20,000 to $100,000 range. “The buyers want to dress up their paintings to make them look like million-dollar objects, and they’re using the framing to do it. So it’s an interesting renaissance in framing interest, but not for the greatest masterpieces—more for the lesser works by great artists that want to look more interesting.”
“It’s almost like what was happening in the 1980s when I really began to encourage collectors and museums to reframe, but we were reframing masterpieces back then,” Wilner continued. “That same energy is being taken to the next level of paintings now. But I’m not sure masterpieces are around, maybe that’s the reason. Who would sell a masterpiece in this market if they didn’t have to?”
Wilner is already considering the legacy of his inventory, with ambitions to found a museum devoted entirely to period frames. Salazar has the same plan for his roughly 1,000-piece collection. And watching the dealer stroll through his Queens gallery, stopping momentarily to single out a frame once owned by Napoleon’s brother, it’s not difficult to imagine his collection in a museum—each frame finally recognized as a work of art in its own right.