The New Gilded Age

CLAVERACK, N.Y. — CLAVERACK, N.Y. - Mary Tyler Moore needed the chipped feet on a piece of furniture fixed, Joan Rivers wanted a 19th-century frame restored and designer Tommy Hilfiger's work order involved gilded mirrors.

Catering to the giltwood needs of such well-heeled patrons is the job of R. Wayne Reynolds, who runs the gilding department at Sotheby's Restoration in upstate New York. A master gilder, Reynolds operated a gilding company in Baltimore for 20 years before moving to Sotheby's two years ago.


Dealing with the fabulously wealthy is a radical departure from Reynolds' days in his Mount Washington and Hampden studios. For starters, getting to the client's home often means lining up for the elevator with other workers.

"It could be the aquarium maintenance man. You just never know. It's not like Baltimore, where you make an appointment, you show up and you go in the front door," Reynolds says. "It's a totally different world and you have to allow for that when scheduling your appointments. At the high end, it's just unbelievable."


Reynolds says that while gold furnishings have never gone out of vogue, there's a renewed interest in restoring gilded objects rather than simply manufacturing replicas. The demand for authentic giltwood ensures a steady supply of furnishings coming and going from the converted 19th-century railway station Sotheby's occupies in Claverack, a sleepy town south of Albany.

There, on a treed site across the street from quaint homes with large porches and manicured lawns, trucks load and unload some of the country's more valuable furnishings. Some are from Sotheby's own auction house, some are from rival Christie's, but most are family treasures.

The company's client list has included celebs such as Jon Bon Jovi and Donald Trump. And Colin Stair, managing director for Sotheby's Restoration, says Martha Stewart's people have been "sniffing around." More often than not, though, customers tend to be lesser-known "super-wealthy, billionaire types," such as the resident of an 8,000-square- foot apartment in Manhattan.

"We tend to serve the high end of the Park Avenue and 5th Avenue crowd in the city and around the city as well," he says.

Golden beginnings

Giltwood may spell old money, but the craft predates its elite aficionados. Gilding has been traced back more than 500 years to pre-Renaissance embellishments on religious pieces, and early Chinese, Egyptian and European societies used gilding in various forms. Stair says gilded objects, which make up about a third of the company's restoration work, emerged in popularity in the 17th century. Everyone from the king of France to wealthy merchants was gilding furnishings, he says, fostering a keeping-up-with-the-Joneses approach to decorating that continues today.

"Clients will say, 'Architectural Digest just came out and Mrs. X has some of those [gilded] chairs. Could I have some of those?'"

The company does knock-offs, but Stair says items with original gilding are the most coveted, appreciated by those with discriminating tastes and deep pockets. Regilding a chair can cost $3,500 to $7,500, depending on size. Much of the cost is racked up by the labor-intensive nature of the process, not the 23-karat gold that's used. But items not requiring restoration work can be equally costly.


Larry Shar is the owner of Julius Lowy Frame & Restoring Co. Inc. in Manhattan, which specializes in antique frames. Shar says with authentic gilded frames becoming increasingly scarce, clients are willing to pay from $5,000 up to $250,000 to showcase their artworks in period frames. He attributes the renewed demand for gilded pieces to more educated, sophisticated collectors and a greater interest in historical values.

"If you have a quarter-million-dollar painting that has age ... there's nothing like having the real McCoy on that piece," Shar says.

Friend in high places

Working with such rare pieces is a change for Reynolds, whose Baltimore business mainly involved restoring frames. His list of credits includes work for the state Capitol building, the Walters Art Gallery, the White House and the regilding of the NationsBank Building on Light Street. Reynolds and a team of 10 workers spent four dizzying weeks applying 64 ounces of gold leaf to the top of the city's only art deco skyscraper, creating the most striking feature on the city's skyline. He lists the project as one of his most difficult jobs, rivaled only by his work on the ceiling of the state Senate caucus chambers and the gilding of two pianos for a New York dealer.

"Instead of sheets of gold, it's miles," he says.

Reynolds, 47, didn't see gold in his future when he graduated from the Maryland Institute, College of Art in 1975 with a degree in painting. He'd planned to move to New York and become a painter, but instead, he met his future wife while in college. After graduating, Reynolds took a job managing a custom frame shop in a Towson art supply store. Customers would come in with ancestral portraits in opulent old giltwood frames, and Reynolds became fascinated with gilding.


"The frames were so beautiful compared to what I had to offer in the modern mouldings," he says. "I got interested in finding out what it would take to repair them."

Gaining that knowledge was no simple matter. At the time, Reynolds says, gilding was an enigmatic craft whose closely guarded secrets were passed down through generations.

"It was extremely hard to get information," Reynolds says. "There was only one person doing gold leaf work in Baltimore at the time and he wasn't talking."

Reynolds found a few basic books and cobbled together more information using his background as an artist. He began gilding three years after college, and soon befriended the frame conservator for the National Gallery of Art in Washington. Reynolds worked for the gallery for four years, until his own business grew into a full-time pursuit.

Reynolds started his enterprise in the attic of a house on an estate in Greenspring Valley owned by a college buddy's grandmother. He worked on frames he found in the house and others supplied by locals. Reynolds eventually purchased one of the 13 houses on the property, and now lives there with his wife and children on weekends home from New York.

Baltimore was good to Reynolds. At one point, he had 13 full-time employees, a large number for a gilding operation outside of New York. Most of his work came from museums, but funding cuts in the 1990s took a chunk out of that market. When Sotheby's first came calling, Reynolds politely declined. It called again, then again. Reynolds made a trip to New York, liked what he saw, and signed a three-year contract.


Stair says Reynolds is that rare combination of artistic talent and business savvy. Not insignificantly, he also came with a client base. "He can get business and do work at the same time," Stair says. "He knows his business."

Intricately crafted staff

At Sotheby's Claverack site, which opened in 1986, furnishings may go through several departments before making their way to Reynolds. In three of the complex's four buildings, artisans restore Chinese and Japanese lacquered furniture, fashion historically correct keys and polish items to a convincingly antique patina. The operation is a United Nations assemblage: In one room, a Sicilian worker is making round feet for a cabinet. In another, a man from Ecuador is carving intricate wooden grapes and leaves to replace missing pieces from a torchere, a tall stand used to hold a candelabra.

Shop manager Neil Van Alstyne says he often looks as far as Europe to find workers with the necessary skills and training. "It's like detective work - you analyze the piece, you break it down into components," he says.

Over in the renovated, airy barn housing the company's only gilding department, Reynolds watches as three of his employees toil meticulously over a torchere, a mirror, a frame and a small piece to be used as a sample for clients. Light streams through high windows onto walls filled with ornately carved mirrors. A mini-dachshund named Lolita sleeps on a chair. Music plays on a boombox and the atmosphere is professionally casual. Reynolds leads a visitor around, explaining a process that has changed little over the centuries.

First, he says, a combination of chalk, water and rabbit skin glue, called gesso, is applied to bare wood. The gesso smoothes the wood grain, creating a perfectly smooth surface intended to eventually resemble solid gold. Next is a layer of clay used to help the gold leaf adhere and provide flexibility for polishing. Sheets of gold leaf 1/250,000 of an inch thick are feathered and blended into the old surface. Various tones of clays and gold are used to reflect historical preferences.


After it dries, the gold is burnished using a hand tool with a curved, polished piece of agate at the tip. The last step is applying a patina carefully designed to match the existing finish. It's Reynolds' favorite stage, when a gilder works shellac and dried color into a bit of restoration magic.

"That's where the art of gilding comes in," he says. "That's where training and fine arts make the differences between a restoration you can see and one that's invisible. We like invisible."

Reynolds plans to stay on at Sotheby's after his contract is up next June and is confident the market for giltwood furnishings is in no danger of drying up, at least not any time soon.

"By the time a piece gets restored and lives somewhere for five years and moves to two states, it's damaged again," he says. "One fire, one flood - things get recycled."

Despite his penchant for giltwood furnishings, though, Reynolds has none in his own home.

"Definitely not," he says. "I don't have the funds to purchase a table that's $30,000."