Written by Elizabeth A. Harris
At a gallery in Long Island City, Queens, Diego Salazar displays his unique collection of art, which is as lovely as it is peculiar. About 250 pieces hang in his main gallery, stacked one inside the next like Russian dolls. Some are covered in cherubs or crosses, others are gilded, and a few are more than 400 years old.
They are picture frames, but nearly every one of them stands empty. The frames themselves are the art.
“Sometimes I buy a painting because I fall in love with the frame,” Mr. Salazar said, gesturing to a lonely portrait banished frameless on the floor. “Then I put the picture up for auction.”
Mr. Salazar spent many decades manufacturing frames out of Brooklyn and Queens, and today he is a collector and dealer of frames that are antiques, and can easily cost tens of thousands of dollars each. But as one might imagine, the market for such treasures is limited, so happily for Mr. Salazar, he does not just own that elaborate and varied collection of frames, but also the 40,000-square-foot building in which they hang. When he bought the building, according to his tenants and his wife, the place was a dump.
Mr. Salazar has a sharp eye for things most people briskly overlook. The outlet for this skill that has brought him the most satisfaction, he says, are his antique frames, a collection of about 1,000 pieces that he describes in tones usually reserved for beautiful women. The outlet that has brought him the most money, however, has been real estate, a collection of three buildings in neighborhoods that were long disregarded.
“When he first took me to see the building he bought in Greenpoint, it looked like somebody had dropped a bomb and then left for a year,” his wife, Gladys Salazar, said. “He said, ‘Look at this wonderful place.’ And I was like, ‘Oh my God!’ ”
Large two-bedroom apartments in that building now start at $3,650 per month.
Antique picture frames can generally cost anywhere from $8,500 to $500,000, depending on the age, rarity and quality. But even enthusiasts like Laurence Kanter, chief curator at the Yale University Art Gallery, says those with an interest in the frames themselves are an uncommon breed, and have been for centuries.
“Nothing is rarer than a period frame, mostly because the moment people thought they looked old-fashioned they just threw them away,” he said. “Frequently you find collectors or museums who don’t mind if the frame came from Woolworths.”
Even Mr. Salazar says that his affair began by accident.
When he moved to New York City from Bogota, Colombia, at age 17, the first job he found, through friends, happened to be making frames. The real estate, he said, was much more deliberate.
“That I knew from my mother,” Mr. Salazar said, explaining that she supported her 15 children in part by renting out rooms in their house.
So the moment he had some money, he started buying property. He picked up his first building in Long Island City in the 1970s for $59,000. There are picture frames in his current collection worth nearly that much.
Asked to put Mr. Salazar’s collection in context, Eli Wilner, a frame dealer who restores antiques and sells precise replicas from his collection of 3,500 pieces, said he could think of only one other person, a client of his in Florida, who collected frames for their own sake.
“Almost always, people buy a frame because of the painting,” Mr. Wilner said.
Today, Mr. Salazar owns the rental building in Greenpoint, once a commercial laundry facility that is now packed with skylights and exposed brick walls, as well as two buildings in Long Island City. One of those, which looks a bit like an abstract Lego creation, he developed himself. The third, on 44th Avenue, houses his gallery. (Mrs. Salazar said that when they bought that building 20 years ago, they welcomed themselves to the neighborhood by making daily calls to the police to complain about a constant parade of prostitutes and their patrons.)
Even the tenants that the Salazars have chosen for their building on 44th Avenue display their tendency to look where others might not. More than 40 of the building’s 49 spaces are occupied by painters, sculptors and other artists who use the brightly lighted spaces as their studios.
There is Elinore Schnurr, a painter who rents a room down the hall from Mr. Salazar’s main gallery, and who has been in his buildings for the better part of 30 years. There is her next-door neighbor, Christina Zuccari, who is third generation in a family business devoted to restoring oil paintings. And just upstairs, there is Robert Jon Badia, an architect and painter who admits that Mr. Salazar’s enthusiasm for frames has rubbed off on him.
“When you go to galleries and museums, you never look at the frames,” Mr. Badia said. “But having that collection downstairs, I’ve come to appreciate them a great deal more.”
There is, however, an occasional downside to this newfound attention to those gilded details. “Now I can see that a lot of things are framed terribly,” he said. “Now I notice that very clearly.”