The New Gilded Age

With the rich and famous paying top dollar for furniture restoration, master gilger R. Wayne Reynolds has become a nearly priceless asset to Sotheby's.

July 25, 2000|By Deborah Bach | Deborah Bach,SUN STAFF

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.

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