Not long ago, I found a nice etching in an old bookshop in northern Connecticut. It was one of several sitting on the floor and stacked against a bookcase. There is no way of knowing how long it had been there, but like its companions it was covered with dust and grime. There were traces of an acidic backing sheet, cardboard backer was brittle with age and the cumulative effects of the acidic pulp used to make the paper. As soon as I returned home with my find, I carefully removed the print from its frame. The print itself was attached to the face of the mat with masking tape. The image was soiled but was in otherwise good condition. I carefully removed the tape and most of the adhesive residue, gently cleaned the face of the print, and installed it in a new museum quality mount. The difference in appearance was remarkable; the print will remain bright and stable for many years to come.
There is nothing more dispiriting than a beautiful print in toxic surroundings. If you are truly fond of a work of art, whatever form it may take and whatever price you paid, you should preserve and maintain it in the best possible condition. Viewed from a perfectly selfish standpoint, the additional cost of properly matting and framing a print will preserve its value. When a shabbily framed print makes its way to the auction house, the long-term adverse effects of the owner's short-sightedness or neglect will have a direct and negative bearing on the price realized.
Here are some basic rules of thumb that apply to framing works of art on paper:
1. Maintain the original print in as close to original condition as possible. Never trim the margins of a print in order to fit an available frame. Rather, order a frame that not only accommodates the full sheet but which also allows extra space on all four edges.
2. Do not adhere or dry mount a work on paper to a substrate. If the print has been torn it can often be carefully mended; if the print is particularly valuable, let an expert perform the repairs. The result can appear to be perfect, but the original damage should and will be discernible to a trained eye, though not necessarily evident to the casual viewer.
3. Everything that you do to a print, such as performing minor repairs or applying hangers in order to mount the print for framing, should be reversible. Be sure to use materials that are stable and acid free, and adhesives that are water soluble. On no account should you ever use solvent based adhesive, so-called magic mending tapes or masking tape on - or near - a fine print. Specialty tapes and adhesives are readily available from a number of outlets and are reasonably priced. Always use them. Good quality framing supplies are readily available in better art supply stores and on line.
4. Because of the effects of changes in temperature and humidity, It is essential that a framed work of art be allowed to expand or contract. Be sure to allow ample space on all four sides of the sheet, because ripples will form if there is insufficient room for movement. The result can be extremely conspicuous and will detract from the overall appearance of the print. Moreover, these ripples have a nasty tendency to set, and the resulting distortion is extremely difficult to reverse without expert assistance. For the same reason, the circumference of the print must never be adhered to either the substrate mount or to the back of the mat itself. Unless the print is very large and printed on heavy paper, hangers at the upper corners of the print or properly spaced mounting corners will ordinarily suffice both to hold the artwork in proper position and to accommodate its expansion and contraction without harm.
5. There must always be a space between the face of the print and the protective glass of the frame. Condensation will otherwise move from the impermeable glass to the print with potentially disastrous results including, but not limited to, water staining and the formation of mold or mildew. The mat itself provides adequate spacing in most circumstances. If a mat will not be used, it will be necessary to use spacers around the perimeter of the frame; concealed by the face of the frame, they will provide the gap between print and glass necessary to avoid transfer of condensation and to allow the print itself to breathe.
6. If the print is a valuable one, the mount to which the print is attached and the mat which frames the print should be buffered 100% cotton fiber (or "rag") board. As a matter of personal preference, I use a product generically referred to as "museum mounting board" for the mat and either museum mounting board or foam board with 100% cotton fiber liners for the mount. The buffering agent is typically calcium carbonate, which guards against acid migration. This product is available in a limited range of colors, most of which are shades of white together with grey and black. For the mat, four ply mounting board provides a pleasing depth for the mat bevel and a healthy gap between print and glass. If you opt to use standard mat board (Bainbridge, Crescent, and other brands) be sure that the product is acid free. The inherent acidity of inexpensive mat boards will migrate to the print itself over time, causing discoloration of the print and creating brittleness in the paper. If you buy a print whose beveled aperture is darker than the face of the mat, remove the print from such a hostile environment as quickly as possible. Inexpensive frames are available almost everywhere and are almost always are supplied with acidic mats. Avoid such trash at all costs or discard the supplied mat and mount and replace it with non-acidic materials.
7. If you've taken all of the necessary pains to make the framed environment a congenial one for your print, use acid-free backing paper for the frame itself. The presence of brown kraft paper on the back of the frame is a warning that all may not be well within. As a matter of course, I remove the print from any frame backed with acidic brown paper.
Once your artwork is properly framed, there are a number of caveats that should govern the placement of the work for display. Exposure to direct sunlight should be avoided, even with the use of UV-resistant glass. Valuable prints should not be hung above radiators or other heat sources or in location where excessive dampness may be encountered. These admonitions are nothing more than the application of common sense; the most carefully and skilfully framed work is susceptible to the effects of careless placement. But insofar as the foregoing seven commandments are obeyed by the serious collector, they will stand you in good stead and earn the gratitude of those who will recognize both your consummate good taste in art and your obvious devotion to the long and happy life of works on paper in the decades and centuries to come.