Photos in Antique Frames

Dear Donia,

Should I save photos in their original antique frames?

antique frame

Q. Dear Donia,

My question is about antique photographs in frames. I have inherited multiple cubic yards (and I mean that) of family photographs and negatives of all kinds. Some go back to the era of tin-types in cases. I have more than a few prints (not tin-types) probably from the mid -1800s that are housed in picture frames. Most often the image is no bigger than about 6 x 8 inches, but the mats and frames are much larger (usually wood frames) and the frames are also usually falling apart. Many have wood backing the area containing the image. I would like to take out the prints and toss the frames but I think there are probably valid reasons for not doing that. It removes them completely from what is left of their context for one thing. What is the recommendation for this situation? It certainly would be much easier to store these images properly if they were out of these frames. Thank you, Elizabeth

A. Dear Elizabeth,

Wow! What a collection. I thought I was lucky to have two such framed photographs in frames as you describe.

Your instincts are correct in that you don't necessarily want to automatically unframe the photos and get rid of the frames. First off is that the prints may not be prints at all if the photograph really is from the mid-1800s. If the photographs are original, it would be best to unframe slowly since some early photographs, especially daguerreotypes, need to remain in their cases or frames to protect them. 

If the photos are modern copies of earlier photographic processes, go ahead and unframe and store the photographs in folders and boxes or polyethylene or polyester sleeves. You can then decide what to do with the frames. For those frames that are in good condition, you may think about donating them to a local college or university special collections or art department. They may be able to provide a new lease on life for the frames so they don't just get tossed away.

Good luck!