Frames as passion and profession

by The Frame Blog

An interview with the Berlin framemaker, restorer, connoisseur and dealer, Olaf Lemke, by Oksana Lysenko

first published in Russian, in Панорама искусств (Panorama of arts), no 2, 2018

‘In 2005, the State Russian Museum in St Petersburg hosted an exhibition, The clothing of pictures: Russian frames from the 18th to the 20th century, where for the first time in Russia the frame was displayed as a work of art in itself. In the foreword to the catalogue, Oksana Lysenko, who had the idea for and curated the exhibition, wrote,

“Perhaps the day is not far off when frames will take their rightful place in the history of art”[1].

Are her hopes justified? Partly. It is still rare for picture frames to be the subject of art historical research in their own right, but in 2014, they became the subject of another large-scale exhibition in Russia – Precious Framing. The painting and its frame: Dialogues – at the State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow [2]. Tatyana Karpova, the catalyst and curator of the exhibition, also organized the first Russian conference on picture frames [3]; and the interest of art historians, antique dealers and the general public in picture frames is gradually growing in Russia. What is happening in the meantime to the subject in Europe, where the study of frames began at the end of the 19th century? What is the state of the collection, preservation and restoration of antique frames? These questions are touched upon in the following interview between the Russian frame historian Oksana Lysenko and the German collector and restorer Olaf Lemke’.

Oksana Lysenko: There is a famous picture frame gallery on Eisenacher Strasse in Berlin, filled with 15th–16th century Italian and Spanish frames, painted or decorated in sgraffito; Netherlandish frames veneered with ebony; and carved giltwood German frames from the mid-18th century, amongst other treasures. The owner of the gallery, Olaf Lemke, is legendary – one of the best restorers and connoisseurs of picture frames in the world, to whom specialists from every country turn for advice. Olaf has been assembling his collection since the 1960s, when he just seemed mildly eccentric: today, however, museums in Germany, America, and the UK display their paintings in his frames. And in Claus Grimm’s seminal 1978 book on the history of frames in western European, Alte Bilderrahmen, examples from Olaf Lemke’s collection are illustrated alongside frames from the world’s most important museums.

Olaf and I recorded this conversation in his gallery in 2016, thanks to the help of our friends, Khima Roskamp, for many years head of the conservation department of the Hamburg Kunsthalle, and Dr Vasilisa Pakhomova-Göres of the Hermitage, who translated from Russian into German and vice versa.

17th century Italian frame with ebony mouldings, the ogee veneered with tortoiseshell, 44.2 x 32cm., collection of Olaf Lemke

Oksana: Olaf, there are not very many people in the world today for whom picture frames are a profession and an important part of life, but you are one of them. How and when did it start? What brought you to frames?

Olaf Lemke: My father was a sculptor (in 1933 and 1945 he carved the portraits of Hitler and Stalin respectively). After the war, however, my father stopped working and often accompanied us to museums. Our mother always said, ‘If you children go to the museum with your father, he’ll just disappear into one of the rooms’, and indeed he often did meet art historians he knew, they started a discussion, and we had to go round the museum by ourselves. During that period of my life, of course, I didn’t look at the frames, but at the paintings; and in any case many paintings had no frames, because as a result of the evacuation at the end of the war, the pieces ended up in different parts of Germany: the frames were in the east, and the paintings were in the west, and before the country was reunified in 1990 many of the original frames were stuck in a different location from their canvases.

Oksana: How did this happen?

Olaf: Because the paintings, especially the larger ones, were evacuated without their frames in order to save space.

Oksana: That’s a familiar situation for me – the same thing happened in St. Petersburg: paintings from the Hermitage, the State Russian Museum and other institutions were evacuated for safety without their frames. Photographs and drawings of the war years have been preserved, in which the empty frames hang in the exhibition halls without their paintings.

16th century Italian frame, carved giltwood, decorated with polychromy and sgraffito, 46.5 x 36cm., collection of Olaf Lemke

Olaf: After the war, my father became an antique dealer – he traded in everything, but mainly paintings. If a picture needed a frame, he went to the nearby company of Sprengel & Sohn, carrying the frames back himself, as he didn’t have a car. Sprengel & Sohn had several employees, and whilst my father was choosing what he wanted, I used to talk to these craftsmen, and when I was 14-16, I often went there alone – on weekends I’d help them in order to earn 2 or 3 marks. One fine day, the owner of the company asked my father, ‘Would your son like to be my apprentice?’ and so, when I was 16, I went there as a student.

The owner of the company had at one time supplied frames to Goering. The paintings stolen by the latter were brought to Sprengel & Sohn, where frames were made for them, and there would be a soldier of the Luftwaffe constantly standing at the door of the workshop, guarding the stolen goods with a machine gun.

In 1955, Sprengel unexpectedly sold the company and left for São Paulo. The new owner turned out to be an alcoholic, and after two or three months he was unable pay either the master craftsmen or the apprentices, so I moved to the firm of Wormuth & Sohn. This had suffered a lot from wartime bombing, so there were no original old frames left in stock. I spent the last two years of my training at Wormuth & Son, where the great skill of craftsmen there provided a very good foundation for my future work.

17th century Baroque Italian frame, veneered in ebony with silver and red glass appliqués, original hanger, 11.3 x 14 cm., collection of Olaf Lemke

Oksana: Did you study restoration as well as actually making frames?

Olaf: Yes, I did; I was taught how to make a frame from start to finish, with every stage in its creation – carved giltwood frames, and moulded frames with compo or plaster ornaments – I needed to be able to make anything. It was very broad education, which left me highly qualified.

Catalogue of one of the world’s first exhibitions of picture frames in Germany, Antike Rahmen (Berlin, 1929), which featured 147 frames from the collection of F.A. Pollak

In 1957, I unexpectedly came across an advert in a magazine, Weltkunst, which said that a Mr Pollak was looking for an assistant in London – specifically a gilder. I discovered that Pollak’s company,  Vergolderei Pygmalion in Berlin, had been one of the best picture frame businesses in the 1920s and 30s. Frederick Pollak, who had started out as an artist, soon realized that he was never going to become a second Picasso, and turned his attention instead to the manufacture of frames. In 1938 he emigrated from Berlin to London, and thanks to his wife and to his connections with the UK government, he managed to smuggle more than a hundred antique frames to London. He also managed to bring Paul Cassierer’s frame collection to London.

Pietro Annigoni (1910-88), The Duchess of Devonshire, 1954, o/c, Chatsworth, Derbyshire; framed by F.A. Pollak

So in 1957, with a small bag, a blanket and 70 deutschmarks, I went to London, where I was hired by Pollak. A gilder from Cologne, Hans Roeder,  arrived at the same time as I did, and he only had experience working with mass-produced frames. The sculptor, Robert Pirschel, was also working there, and it soon became clear that neither of them had had the education that I had, but I tried not to show off and we established a good relationship. We worked very hard, even at the weekend.

Rubens (1577-1640), The Adoration of the Magi, framed by F.A. Pollak in the 1960s [4] for King’s College, Cambridge. Photo: Andy

I spent three years at Pollak’s firm, and it was the richest experience. I always made a note of the paintings which came to the workshop for framing. We didn’t sell antique frames so much – it was the replicas we made of them, and the standard was so high that the client couldn’t recognize which was the original and which was the copy. Even small mistakes, jagged edges and other flaws in the original were repeated in the copy.

Oksana: Did you sell antique frames, though?

Olaf: Frederick Pollak had one to two hundred old frames, and all of them were used as models for copying, so we needed to hang onto them. But today I am the only frame dealer who basically doesn’t make any copies – I only sell antique frames. In this sense, I ‘stand on one leg’, because everyone else both makes copies of antique frames and sells the real thing (by the way, a good replica costs the same as the original).

Mrs Pollak was very strict, like a little sheepdog – she would peep through the keyhole and shout, ‘Lemke’s not working!’ – whereas Frederick himself was quite trusting. My table was behind the master’s table, and I watched him at work all the time. Being an artist, Pollak had a very subtle perception of colour and knew how to handle it – perhaps like no-one else. When he tinted a frame, he put on an old dressing-gown and started his chemical experiments with salts and acids – he was always looking for ways to replicate – to fake – an antique patina. ‘Fake’ in this sense doesn’t mean as a criminal undertaking, but as a task one sets oneself to create the best possible copy: the most perfect imitation. After he’d performed his piece of witchcraft with his paints, Pollak would take off his gown and tell the students, ‘Now you can clean it all up!’

Italian cassetta, 16th century, finished with parcel-gilding, paint, and sgraffito inscription, 59 x 46.5 cm., collection of Olaf Lemke

My favourite technique at the time was sgraffito. I have always been the one to volunteer to execute sgraffito work whenever it was necessary, because I was so delighted with the elegance and skill of the sgraffito decoration on antique frames. My other hobby-horse was trompe l’oeil 3D ornament executed in paint. When Pollak taught me this technique, he used shadows to explain it. He would hold up a lighted candle and say, ‘Look how the shadow falls’. I would see how shadow was generated on and around the carved ornament in the candlelight, and in this way I got to understand the sculptural solidity of the frame and how to ‘carve’ the pretended relief in paint.

There were two friends – colleagues of mine connected with Pollak’s firm –  whom I would like to mention.

I want first to remember Hermann Guttmann, who managed to escape from Nazi Germany as a teenager, thanks to the fact that his Jewish parents sent him in 1938 on a Kindertransport train from Berlin to London, as part of the effort to save Jewish children from Nazi-controlled territory. At that time there was a shop in Berlin which sold cardboard suitcases; they didn’t last very long could hold quite a lot, so he and his parents went to this shop before he left. There he first saw Friedel, a Jewish girl of his own age, and it was love at first sight – and for life. Later, he met Friedel again at an orphanage.

In London, Guttmann began working as a gilder for Pollak. In 1955, he asked his boss to let him have a fortnight’s holiday in order to fly to New York and marry Friedel – although he had no intention of returning to London. He didn’t admit this to Pollak and never returned; a fact which haunted him all his life.

After Guttmann left, Pollak advertised in Weltkunst that he was looking for a gilder to fill the vacant place – which was the advert I saw, as mentioned above. I applied and was accepted, so I too ended up in London in Pollak’s workshop. Years later, I met Hermann Guttmann and we became lifelong friends.

Paul Levi

I also want to mention Paul Levi. He was born in Leipzig, and left Germany for the same reason in 1936, also moving to the UK. At the beginning of the war, he, like all Jewish immigrants, was taken to an internment camp; although when the British realized that the Jews were not dangerous, they allowed them to leave the camp in the morning and return in the evening. Paul Levi also found a place in Pollak’s workshop, although I didn’t meet him until long after my own time with Pollak.

Rembrandt (1606-69), Agatha Bas, 1641, o/c, 105.4 x 83.9 cm., Royal Collection Trust; framed by Paul Levi in parcel-gilt and ebonized frame

Time passed, and he opened his own workshop and business: he worked with frames for the rest his life; and since we first met, we became very great friends. The Levi family had been Protestants for several generations, and in 2008, on the day of Paul Levi’s funeral  at a Protestant church in London, his family requested that, as his oldest friend, I give the farewell address.

It was in London that I really developed a passion for frames – whilst I lived and worked there, I went to one of the museums every weekend and drew frames for myself. But then I returned to Berlin – and just at the time when Khrushchev had issued an ultimatum on the Berlin question, demanding that the western allies withdraw all their troops. Many West Berliners with their own companies left the city, fearing that it would become part of the Soviet Union. At first I was left without any work, and I had to get a job at a construction site in Charlottenburg.

Three or four months later, the owner of Wormuth & Sohn, where I had worked before leaving for London, and who was now aged 60, unexpectedly approached me with an offer, ‘My father handed over the company to me when he was sixty, and now I’m passing it on to my son. Would you like to be a partner in it?’ I agreed, and the result was a contract in which 60% of the shares belonged to the son, Werner Wormuth, and 40% to me.

In the early 1960s I found out that there was a sister workshop to ours in Vienna; so I went there, sat in front of the workshop and asked everyone who went in or came out if he was the owner, Herbert Stiassny. Having met him, I bought some beautiful antique frames there, and after that I regularly travelled to Vienna, from 1963 to 1968, returning with a car full of frames.

16th century aedicular frame from Mechelen, Flanders, carved giltwood and polychromy with inscription, 90 x 65 cm., collection of Olaf Lemke

Gradually I also established contacts with antique dealers selling frames in the Netherlands, Venice, and other places throughout Europe. However, my partner in the company was unhappy about this constant purchasing of old frames, saying, ‘We haven’t got a museum!’ I reponded, ‘It’s better to earn a bit less, and invest in these treasures’. I also tried to explain to him that selling such priceless antiques could bring in a decent income – it can be very profitable to buy a frame for two or three thousand, and sell it for a larger sum. But these arguments gradually put a strain on our relationship.

Oksana: Olaf, do I understand correctly – was the firm’s income now coming from the sale of antique frames? Had you stopped making replicas?

Olaf: No, copies were still being made, and the antique frames were being sold mainly to museums. It was important for a museum to find a frame of the same style and period as the painting in question, as well as to match it very closely in size; but sometimes museums, too, were forced to commission copies. For example, the Schloss Charlottenburg in Berlin needed a frame for Watteau’s famous L’enseigne de Gersaint.

Watteau (1684-1721), L’enseigne de Gersaint, 1720, o/c, 163 x 308 cm., Schloss Charlottenburg, Berlin

The original frame from this piece was believed to be still in East Germany, in the Bode Museum. I managed to get into the stock rooms of the Bode Museum and make sure that there were no frames of such a large size, so after that it was decided that a copy should be made, using a carved giltwood frame from mid-18th century Potsdam as the model.

In the late 1960s, my first teacher, Georg Sprengel, returned to Germany – to Munich. He told me that he had been in Spain, where he had bought a large number of antique frames. He suggested that I come and buy them from him, and that’s exactly what I did. ‘Go to Spain yourself!’ he advised.

So, in 1968, my wife and I went on holiday to Ibiza. I had 20,000 German marks with me: ten thousand of my own and ten from my partner. Ibiza seemed to me like paradise – in one district where there were a great many small shops selling all kinds of things, every shopkeeper had between ten and twenty antique frames! Gradually, a rumour spread among the inhabitants that a crazy man had arrived among them; one who would pay good money for these pieces of wood! (they looked at old frames as little better than firewood). I ended up buying 120-130 frames, half of which were from the 16th century.

17th century Baroque Spanish polychrome frame, painted with green and ochre acanthus leaves with white rinceaux at corners and centres on a red ground, 63 x 47.5cm., collection Olaf Lemke

My second trip was to Mallorca, although this time, on our return, an unfortunate incident occurred at customs, as a result of which we had to go back to Berlin without any of the frames –  and they were only sent on to us three months later.

In the meantime (by now it was 1968-69), my disagreements with my partner worsened considerably and I ended up by leaving the company. When the frames arrived from Mallorca, we divided them in half, since each of us had invested ten thousand marks in the purchase.

Oksana: And this, I believe, was the beginning of your collection?

Olaf: Yes. A few months later, my wife and I went to Spain again; and we returned annually for twenty-eight years (so I know Spain better than Germany!). We spent four weeks on the road each time, and travelled ten thousand kilometres.

Oksana: Why Spain, Olaf?

17th century Baroque Spanish frame, 103.5 x 81 cm., collection of Olaf Lemke

Olaf: The Spanish Empire was one of the largest and longest-lasting in history: the Netherlands and much of Italy came under its rule, and everyone flocked there. Spain also had a very rich church. Despite the destruction of the civil war, a great deal of art has been preserved there, and I found interesting frames in every village.

Oksana: Did you buy Netherlandish, French and Italian frames there, as well as Spanish?

Olaf: Yes, I did – and by this point they would already be awaiting us: the Spanish dealers were ready for us, gathering frames together and storing them until we arrived.

Oksana: Can you remember the most striking incidents – any interesting stories relating to your search for frames?

Olaf: The most interesting part of it was our dealings with the Spanish gitanos, or Romani. They knew where to get hold of antique frames, and they collected them, realizing what they might earn. As a nomadic people, the gitanos could cover a great deal of the country, and they were also Catholics and had good connections with the churches and monasteries.

The gitanos settled in deserted homes and buildings dating back to the 16th century, and set up their shops there. Each of them would have two or three floors filled only with furniture – and what didn’t they sell, including frames! Often the paintings would be quite unimportant, whilst their frames were original – magnificent examples from the 15th and 16th centuries! For us from northern Europe, it was difficult to adapt to the Mediterranean temperament – you had to be able to bargain. We were seen as very wealthy people, although we were quite the opposite, with our twenty thousand marks borrowed from the bank; so we used to bargain for hours, and come up with various tricks to equal their own. For example, I saw what I thought was a good frame, coated dirt, so I said that it was worth very little and should really be scrapped.

Oksana: What language did you talk to them in?

17th century Spanish frame, carved giltwood, 37.5 x 27 cm., collection of Olaf Lemke

Olaf: Over time, I learned most of the phrases I needed in Spanish, and my wife learned the language well – better than I did. I also had a Spanish friend, Alberto, who helped me to buy frames. The gitanos paid him a commission to introduce them to me, and I paid him as well. Sometimes when there were disagreements over the sale, he would tell the sellers that he would not take a percentage from them, but in return they should reduce the price. Generally, this was all like a kind of spontaneous theatre. Sometimes my wife’s nerves couldn’t stand it, and she would run out into the street, crying; but still the negotiations went on. It’s a difficult situation, if there are six or eight dealers on the other side who can manipulate you quite dextrously…

Olaf Lemke’s frame gallery in Berlin

17th century Bolognese carved giltwood frame, 92 x 77cm., collection of Olaf Lemke

Oksana: Yes, indeed – but your superb collection, which any museum would envy, must have been worth it. When did the idea of ​​opening a gallery of frames come about, Olaf?

Olaf: It was just before the reunification of Germany, in 1989. A friend who sold East Asian art said he was leaving his premises because he had found a new gallery, and I wanted a space to rent to show how my frames would look in an interior, hanging on the wall, where in principle they can be displayed both empty and around a painting.

Oksana: You’re not only a collector, but a dealer, selling frames from your magnificent collection. But are there any of them that you would never sell – any which are special? – your favourites?

Olaf: There are, indeed, but not here, in my gallery. When I go to a shop myself and ask how much a frame costs, if the owner replies that it means a lot to him and is therefore not for sale, I always leave, I don’t insist; but from my point of view, only items which are actually for sale should hang in the area of the gallery which customers see. So everything that’s displayed in my gallery and shop is for sale, and I keep the frames which I don’t want to part with at home.

Oksana: Many European museums nowadays pay great attention to framing their collection, looking for historical frames created at the same time and in the same area as the painting. This is really important – in an authentic period frame, the dignity of the picture can be most completely experienced. In addition, the viewer gets a much better idea of the era and the fashions of that particular time when they see a painting in an historically appropriate frame. I know that, thanks to you, more than one old master in more than one museum has been given a really splendid frame. Can you tell me about some of these, please?

Leonardo (1452-1519), Madonna of the yarnwinder, c.1501, o/panel, 48.3 x 36.9 cm., National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh

Olaf: Well, I have collaborated with many museums – the National Gallery in London, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, and museums in Berlin, Dresden, and Munich. In 2011 I found a very interesting frame for Leonardo da Vinci’s Madonna of the yarnwinder in Edinburgh. It was a Renaissance cassetta, with an inscription on the frieze in sgraffito. These inscriptions indicate what subject was inside the frame, and the text of this one revealed that it was designed for a Madonna and Child (the size of the frame also fitted Leonardo’s work perfectly).

Sadly, German museums have not been buying frames from me for many years, because they don’t have enough money.

Oksana: Would they like to?

Olaf: Yes, of course; but unless they have a sponsor, museums often can’t afford to make such purchases. For examples – the Prussian Palaces of Berlin and Brandenburg have magnificent art collections, and I offered them some really beautiful frames for their paintings, but the foundation just wasn’t able to buy them. It’s also true that a museum may have a patron who offers several hundred thousand euros to acquire a painting, and the curator doesn’t dare ask for enough on top to buy the right frame, as well. Today, in general, the purchasing power of museums has shrunk. Some of the connections I used to work with have vanished, and private collectors of my own age have either died or have stopped collecting.

Many years ago I met a banker, who visited me and bought a number of frames at the same time. I asked him what he was going to do with them, and he replied that he wasn’t able to afford 15th century paintings, but he could still afford to buy Renaissance frames. In the 1990s, this man moved to London and bought a Victorian house which he remodelled specifically to display his frames: it even had glass walls so that he could see the frames all the time. He is also no longer adding to his collection.

I called one of my collectors recently about a very rare Bolognese Renaissance frame which was entered in the 2016 Schmidt auction in Dresden. This frame had once belonged to Rudolf Lepke, founder of one of the largest auction houses in Europe. When I had examined it, I also called the National Gallery in London, hoping that one or the other would be able buy such an important piece.

15th century Venetian cassetta with moulded pastiglia ornament and gilding, 71.5 x 63.4 cm., collection of Olaf Lemke

Oksana: Today most of your clients are private collectors. As a rule, do they buy frames for old master paintings or for modern works of art?

Olaf: Alas, mainly for 20th century work, because there are almost no 15th–16th century paintings without frames in private collections; although unfortunately today it’s also the fact that collectors of old paintings don’t value the frames.

Twenty or thirty years ago, there were connoisseurs who collected paintings and looked for frames to match them in period and style, despite the fact that this is an expensive pleasure. Now some collectors have begun to say that they’ve already paid a high price for the painting, and don’t want to pay a lot more for the frame. They don’t understand the rôle of a good quality antique frame, and how valuable it is. Only a very few people understand it – most are completely unaware.

17th century Baroque Florentine pierced leaf frame, carved, parcel-gilt with polychromy, 62 x 48 cm., collection of Olaf Lemke

Sometimes people ask me why my frames are so expensive, and I try to explain that it’s because of their extraordinary quality, workmanship and rarity. I pay a rent of 12 thousand euros a month to house and display them, and I wouldn’t be able to afford it if I sold cheap, poor quality frames.

It is very difficult to discover good antique frames, and finding the perfect match of a frame to the style, period and size of a painting needs a lucky break. This can only really be achieved if you have a large collection. My business has never been stable – it’s always fluctuated, with successful and less successful periods; however, I always base what I do on my knowledge and on my conscience. I don’t try to sell the frame at any cost – that’s not how I work.

If I see that the client wants something that I don’t agree with, I warn him that he can purchase any frame he likes, but it’s not what I would choose. Often he’ll listen to me and change his mind, which is important to me, as I only want an harmonious combination of painting and frame.

Picasso (1881-1973), Dora Maar with green fingernails, 1936, o/c, 65 x 45 cm., Museum Berggruen, Berlin

Oksana: I know that you found frames for paintings in the collection of the famous  art dealer, Heinz Berggruen, which he bequeathed to Berlin. At the Berggruen Museum, near the Charlottenburg Palace, I saw Picasso’s Portrait of Dora Maar in a late 17th century Spanish frame from your collection, which was a really excellent combination. Tell me, was it easy to work with Heinz Berggruen?

Olaf: When Heinz Berggruen arrived in Berlin from London in the 1990s, bringing his collection with him, he came to my gallery, had a cup of tea, looked around and left. My wife asked me afterwards why I hadn’t said to him that I’d like to work with him, and I told her, ‘He saw everything for himself.’ (I never force myself on anyone. I wait for the customer to come to me.) Two years later, Berggruen called me and said reproachfully, ‘You’ve got a monopoly on frames here!’

I explained to him that whilst I had no employees, I still had to pay rent for the premises, and even so, my prices were lower than those in Paris or London. So Berggruen gave me a work by Picasso – a drawing of a relief – and I found a 16th century Spanish frame which fitted this work to within tenths of a millimetre. Picasso’s drawing was executed in black pencil, and the frame was also painted black with a grey top edge. But Berggruen looked at the close fit of this frame and said,  ‘That’s impossible…’

But it was possible, because as early as the 17th century the French had had standard-sized frames for marines, portraits and landscapes. There were special lists of standard sizes for paintings which appeared at the beginning of the 17th century, so that both the craftsmen who made stretchers for canvases and the framemakers could rely on these measurements, and produce frames with rebates which would always fit the stretchers, and the artists and collectors could also rely on them. Picasso was aware of these standard sizes and always stuck to them. I explained all this to Berggruen aand added that we could try another frame of exactly the same size. I asked him, ‘When can you come and see it?’, to which he responded, ‘Look, I’m already 88! – can I come straightaway?” After that we began to co-operate, and Berggruen usually called me every other week.

Picasso (1881-1973), Portrait of a woman, 1923, corner of frame, Museum Berggruen, Berlin

He had an agreement with the Nationalgalerie in Berlin that the museum would pay for the frames of his paintings, and I always sent my bills there; so whenever Berggruen visited me, two employees of the Nationalgalerie were always present, for consultation. But when they left, having given their opinion, Berggruen would ask, ‘Now – when can I bring you my Picasso?’

After his death I didn’t find it possible to work with his son, because we have such different points of view. Once he put a painting by Miró down on the floor and said, ‘Look how nicely the brown floor frames it.’ I replied that I don’t consider gimmicks like that; – we just don’t think in the same way.

Oksana: What guides you when you have to choose frames for works by 20th century artists?

Olaf: Well, I bought a lot of Spanish frames which had come from monasteries and had barely kept anything of their finish. Diligent monks had rubbed off both paint and gilding from them in an effort to remove the dust. It is impossible to determine the age of frames which have lost their gesso coating and decorative finish – they could come from almost anywhere on a timeline of two centuries. Of course, you know that by the end of the 19th century, antique Louis XIV frames were having their gilding removed, and often the bole and some of the gesso. I would never do that; on the contrary, I return the frames as far as possible to their original appearance, and I clean and preserve the old finish.

16th century looking-glass frame, carved in limewood with fruit garland and armorial bearings of Praun of Nuremberg, original convex mirrored plate, 14 cm. diam., collection of Olaf Lemke

But I don’t touch the frames which have already lost much of their finish; instead I wait for the right painting to appear, and then I decide what to do with the surface. In other words, I don’t restore the frame until a painting has been found for it – and sometimes there’s an interesting echo of the worn, lost finish of the frame in a 20th century painting.

Somehow, whilst Berggruen was in Paris, he managed to buy a giltwood frame for a Picasso – although his wife told him that it was a disgraceful choice. Then I offered him a Spanish frame from the end of the 17th century with a worn, faux marbre finish. Berggruen had paid 20,000 euros for the Parisian frame, while mine cost 14 thousand; but we just did a swap, and so today Berggruen’s frame hangs in my gallery, and my frame in his museum.

Another example of an unrestored antique Spanish frame is the one now on Salvador Dalí’s The Surrealist Mystery of New York in 1935, in the collection of Ulla and Heiner Pietzsch. I chose this frame and kept it looking exactly as it was when I bought it, without any restoration of the losses, because in Dalí’s painting the body is melting and disappearing. I always explain to customers why I choose this or that frame and what I’m guided by, and as a rule the owners of the painting agree with me.

Oksana: In other words, Olaf, you don’t work from documentary evidence and photos, but from your own intuition?

Olaf: As a rule I do, yes.

Oksana: This is completely unacceptable, of course, for museums, which have to proceed on the lines of strict historical accuracy. Did you know that at the Guggenheim Museum in New York they are beginning to replace the uniform baguette mouldings either with the original frames stored in the museum’s stockrooms, or replacement versions of those chosen by the artists themselves? This process is founded on meticulous research, using photographs, the artists’ letters and memoirs, and any other documents which provide evidence of the original choice of design.

Double page from the illustrated edition of Bilderträume: Die Sammlung Ulla und Heiner Pietzsch gerahmt von Olaf Lemke

A private collector, of course, isn’t limited by any idea of historical truth, but only by the laws of harmony – and in this, in my opinion, you have no equal. Bilderträume: Die Sammlung Ulla und Heiner Pietzsch gerahmt von Olaf Lemke [5], the book which describes your work with the famous Pietzsch family collection and only ten copies (!) of which were published, should, I think, be reprinted for the general reader; it would be an indispensable guide for all framemakers, and for collectors, too. I always look at the illustrations in this book with great pleasure, enjoying your choices and the colour harmonies and rhythmic unity of the paintings and their frames. You emphasize all the best points of the Surrealists’ paintings, and I would go so far as to say that many pieces look even better in the frames you’ve chosen – it’s quite amazing!

Olaf: Thank you, Oksana!

Oksana: Could you tell us about your collaboration with Ulla and Heiner Pietzsch, please, Olaf?

Olaf: Well, the Pietzschs asked me to frame a painting by Francis Bacon which measured 1.5 x 3 metres. There wasn’t any frame large enough in my collection, so I had to make a replica based on an existing original frame. This was their first commission.

Bacon’s work was sold in new gilded frames – it is not known whether these were commissioned by the artist himself or by his dealers; but, judging by the photos, I think it must have been the dealers.

Yves Tanguy (1900-55), Surreal composition, 1927, Pietzsch collection; detail of 18th century Spanish polychrome frame

The Pietzschs and I got on familiar terms some time ago. And here’s another story – they’re a wealthy family, so they expect people to try to take advantage of them and hence they tend to keep aloof. About twenty-five years ago or more, Heiner Pietzsch called me and asked me to come and see him, because he had bought some drawings by the American Surrealists and wanted me to frame them.

A few weeks later, he called me again, and asked, ‘Well, do you have any ideas for framing the drawings you took away with you?’

I then realized that I had absolutely no memory of bringing the drawings home, and no idea of where I could have put them. Terrified, I started looking for them and couldn’t find them! For months we rummaged through everything in search of those drawings, but they couldn’t be found; so in the end I had no choice but to call Pietzsch and confess, ‘I’m afraid that I can’t find your drawings. You’d better tell me what I owe you?’

‘I do not know,’ he said. ‘Better look again.’

Then, on the second day of Christmas, he called me and said, ‘I must tell you that we just moved the sofa, and all three drawings were behind it.’

I burst into tears – because until that moment I had been sure that I must have taken the drawings home and lost them.

‘You wanted to pay for the loss,’ Pietzsch said, ‘so I didn’t set my lawyer on you.’

André Masson (1896-1987), Massacre, 1931, Pietzsch collection, Pietzsch collection; detail of 17th century Spanish polychrome frame

Since then we’ve been on rather more familiar terms, and use the informal word for ‘you’ instead of the formal version. The Pietzschs have complete confidence in my opinion (in the early days of our co-operation, I sometimes suggested two or three choices of frame for each painting, and we would decide together which one was better).

Oksana: I think that it’s a very good idea, to put 20th century works into historic frames. What could be a better setting for a painting than an expertly-chosen antique frame by a master framemaker? Unfortunately, in Russia, both museums and private collectors put 20th century paintings into  uniform shadow boxes.

I remember, Olaf, you told me that sometimes when you were framing the work of modern artists, you imagined how they would frame them themselves.

Olaf: Yes, I do – although I have to say that there are some artists in the last century who didn’t care about their frames at all.

Schmidt Kunstauktionen Dresden, 17 September 2016, illustrating an aedicular frame from Modena or Bologna, 1480–1500

Oksana: I always enjoy the frames in your gallery – and not only because there are wonderful, unique treasures here, the best examples of the art from many different countries – but also because these are frames which have retained their original appearance. It is invaluable that we are able to see such detailed workmanship by old master carvers and gilders. This is the result of careful and highly professional restoration. Please could you tell us what you are striving for when restoring a frame?

Olaf: Well, I carefully remove all later additions from the frame – gilding, paint, whatever – until I reach the original finish. I reveal, as much as is possible, whatever is left of the frame as its makers left it, two, three or more centuries ago. Sometimes, however, one has to deal with the naïve and primitive notion held by art critics and others that a picture is allowed be covered in craquelure, and this does not spoil it, but the frame should look like new. I think that we should fight with all our might against such mistaken ideas.

A Rococo ‘Cuvilliers’ frame, 18th century Bavaria, carved giltwood (the gilding has almost disappeared), 99 x 78cm., collection of Olaf Lemke

Oksana: It is very difficult! At one point under the Soviet Union, many frames, and especially their finish, suffered due to poor ‘restoration’ – although it can’t really be called restoration; for instance, worn gilding was often coated with bronze powder in an oil binder, which blackened over time. And today I’ve noticed another problem – both private collectors and even some museums strive to make the frames look like new and regild them. Unfortunately, they don’t seem to understand that by doing this they not only spoil, but, I’d say, they destroy the old frames, because the finish (paint and gilding) is just as important for these works of art as the carved ornament. A frame which has been newly regilded is no longer a product of its time; it’s as though a picture had been repainted: the composition is the same, but whilst the colours are similar, they are also different – chemical and modern – and the work as a whole cannot be considered an original any more. But the strangest thing is that there are buyers for these ‘updated’ antique frames, and they pay a lot of money for them.

Olaf: This is absurd!

Oksana: Olaf, you are one of the best restorers in the world. Do museums or private collectors ever come to you with an antique frame which needs to be restored? And would you take on such a job?

Olaf: For the last twenty or thirty years, I have been taking on some of these commissions, but only if it is some exceptional item which needs to be saved. If not, then I give the owner my advice, and tell him whatever materials I think should be used by any restorer whom the owner subsequently turns to – I share my knowledge.


This is an example of Olaf’s generosity. His gallery is not a public museum, but it’s always open to art historians and connoisseurs, and he will readily give an exhaustive answer to a professional question, believing that knowledge and experience are acquired in order to share them. Unfortunately, although such an expert on frames is famous among European curators and collectors, he’s practically unknown in Russia. I hope that recording our conversation here will not only improve the situation, it will also allow us to benefit from the secrets of Olaf Lemke’s unique knowledge, and will to some extent help to preserve the heritage of all those master carvers and gilders of previous centuries.

Oksana Lysenko in Olaf Lemke’s gallery in 2015. Photo: V. Logvanev


[1] The clothing of pictures: Russian frames from the 18th to the 20th century, 2005, p. 7

[2] A catalogue was published for the exhibition: Precious Framing. The painting and its frame: Dialogues, 2014

[3] The papers from this conference were published as The frame as a work of art, 2015

[4] See Jacob Simon’s entry for F.A. Pollak in the Directory of British Picture Framemakers, NPG website

[5] I hope that readers won’t confuse this unique book with the unillustrated edition, Bilderträume: Die Sammlung Ulla und Heiner Pietzsch, which was published in large numbers in 2009. The version which is referred to here was published by Olaf Lemke himself, and has images of the paintings in their frames. The illustrations are also paired – the painting or drawing without a frame on one side, and the same picture, now framed, on the other;  so the reader can compare them, and see what they think