This Guy Will Frame You
By Ralph Gardner, Jr.
I can’t remember what Eli Wilner pulled out first-the DVD of the Morley Safer story that ran on CBS Sunday Morning about Mr. Wilner’s reframing of Emanuel Leutze’s monumental “Washington Crossing the Delaware” for the Metropolitan Museum-or the childhood drawing, not bad for a 9-year-old, of a potted plant. In any case, I got the sneaking suspicion I wasn’t the first journalist upon whom Mr. Wilner had bestowed these artifacts.
“I gave my uncle my pastels and oil paintings,” Mr. Wilner recalled, of a relative in the art business. “He’d hang them next to Modigliani and Chagall. I was certain I was the next Michelangelo or Rembrandt. There was no doubt. I thought I’d be hanging in museums.” He paused for dramatic effect. “My frames are in museums.”
I suppose it would be preferable to have one’s paintings on the walls of the Met than ones’ frames. But Mr. Wilner, who was born in Israel and moved to the U.S. when he was 6, has certainly made the best of his limitations: He’s one of America’s great framers (at least the employees in his Long Island City studio are; Mr. Wilner doesn’t touch the carving tools himself), his work not only at the Met but ubiquitous and on loan at Sotheby’s-“It’s a really good way for me to market,” Mr. Wilner confided-and in some of the world’s most important private collections.
It’s a Wilner frame embellishing Picasso’s “Nude, Green Leaves and Bust,” at $106.5 million one of the most expensive paintings ever sold at auction. The asking price on the frame was $65,000. “I think the auction house ended up buying it,” for the client, Mr. Wilner recalled, referring to Christie’s. And there are 28 Wilner frames hanging in the White House.
But perhaps my favorite is the $22,000 copy of a Stanford White frame made for a client’s flat-screen TV at his York Avenue gallery. “A lot of my clients are extremely wealthy,” Mr. Wilner said. “It’s dizzying.”
The framer isn’t doing so bad himself, if his lifestyle is any indication. He keeps a small apartment in Manhattan but divides his time between homes in Montauk, N.Y., and Palm Beach, Fla., where he lives with his wife, “energy healer” and author Barbara Brennan. That’s when he’s not on the road trying to open new markets for his frames in places like China and Taiwan. American Express also has used his image and company to promote its credit cards at trade shows. He travels around town in a chauffeur-driven Escalade and is a regular at the Mark Hotel’s Jean-Georges Vongerichten restaurant, where I joined him for lunch and he suggested I order the puree of green peas, followed by the veal Milanese.
It would be easy to dismiss the craft of framing, or at least regard it as inferior to that of creating the art that resides within its borders. Except for one thing. It’s amazing what the right frame can do for a painting. It’s almost unfair to the artist. You’d think a Picasso ought to be able to stand on its own. But with rare exceptions-Mr. Wilner counts abstract expressionists such as Rothko and Barnett Newman among them because their art generally demands you be able to see the surface’s edge-the appropriate frame can make a mediocre painting look decent, a good painting great, and a great painting sublime.
Mr. Wilner, 55, describes his talent as one of understanding, even empathy for artists long gone, bolstered by the extensive study of frames from the periods when they painted. While he owns a large collection of antique frames, he said he prefers not to sell them but to use them as models to build replicas.
“I had this gift,” he remembers of his first job in the late ’70s as a framer for the Shepherd Gallery. Actually it was his second job. He started his career as an art restorer but quit after a couple of years when the fumes from the chemicals gave him splitting headaches. “It was just another art form,” he said of framing. “It was like creating. I saw no difference between painting and framing.
“The year I left I was making $100,000 at 27,” he went on. “Everyone told me I was insane to leave the company.”
But in the next breath, or maybe it was the previous one (I was distracted by my soup, which was great), he told me that he had only $6,000 when he went into business on his own. Where did the rest of the money go? “I was a kid,” he said. “I spent the money as fast as I made it.”
Did I mention that Mr. Wilner recently framed what he described as “the most valuable tiny painting of all time”? It was a Lucian Freud self-portrait, according to the framer, measuring 5 inches by 3 inches, that sold for $5 million in London in February. He couldn’t reveal what he charged the Met for reframing “Washington Crossing The Delaware,” which will make its debut when the museum’s renovated American Wing reopens next year, except to say that if a private collector wanted a copy of the 23-foot-by-12-foot, 3,000-pound structure (the golden hand-carved eagle crest atop it alone measures 12 feet across) would cost approximately $1.4 million.
We returned to the Escalade for the ride across the 59th Street Bridge to Mr. Wilner’s studio. On the way, he pulled out his iPad and showed me a picture-framing app he’d created. It was kind of neat. You can take an image of your kids or your cat and slap a Rembrandt frame around it, or if you prefer, something similar to the frame Mr. Wilner’s workshop was gilding for another Met painting when we arrived-Frederic Church’s magnificent “Heart of the Andes.”
“I spent an inordinate amount of money making this,” he explained. “They’re going to love the random button. We’re going to also work with Kodak so you can frame T-shirts and coffee mugs.”
I was about to ask, why bother? When you’re creating museum-quality frames don’t you run the risk of diminishing your brand? But Mr. Wilner, perhaps anticipating my question, answered it himself. And in the process revealed perhaps his greatest gift of all. “I think I would have enjoyed marketing, if not what I’m doing. Getting the word out. I get a lot of pleasure out of it. I think selling is a higher calling.”
Write to Ralph Gardner at email@example.com
About Eli Wilner & Company
Recognized as the foremost worldwide authority on antique frames, and founded in 1983, Eli Wilner & Company specializes in American and European frames from the 17th-through mid-20th centuries. Clients include fine art collectors, major art and historical institutions as well as The White House, where he has created 28 frames for its collection.
With an atelier composed of a team of thirty highly skilled artisans, including 15 frame conservators, and over 10,000 custom framing projects completed to date, Eli Wilner & Company takes pride in each project. Every frame is handcrafted to not only reflect the time in which the painting was created, but also to best reflect the framing choices known to be made by the artists themselves.