Behind the Frames: Lifelong friends discover a passion in art and auctions

Brandon Stone, left, and Austin Helmuth sit in their downtown Sarasota gallery with a few of the more than 500 period frames from the collection of Eli Wilner that will be auctioned later this month.

Austin Helmuth and Brandon Stone first met in Kindergarten in Sarasota and have remained friends for nearly two decades. Though they were studying for different careers, they have turned their friendship into a business they say would probably shock their childhood and college friends.

Helmuth Stone Gallery on Main Street in Sarasota, which sells and auctions fine art and antiques, grew out of summer jobs they had at Sarasota Trading Company, where they helped launch an estate auction operation. Helmuth was studying finance and business and Stone was majoring in criminal justice before they saw the possibilities of creating their own company.

They’re about to host one of their biggest auctions on Jan. 28 with an extensive collection of antique frames, some of them dating back 400 years and valued at tens of thousands of dollars.

Helmuth said they come from the gallery of master New York framer Eli Wilner, who began collecting antique frames decades ago before he shifted his focus to creating historic replicas or creating originals in a historic style.

Wilner’s work hangs in museums. One of his best-known frames surrounds Emanuel Leutze’s 1851 painting “Washington Crossing the Delaware, which hangs in the American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He has 28 frames in the White House collection, as well as some in the Smithsonian.

This hand-carved, 40

Building a career crafting period-style frames for museums and private collectors, Wilner used original antique frames as reference points and models. Now, 500 of those antique frames are being auctioned through Helmuth Stone at what Helmuth said will be a fraction of their estimated values.

“Many of them are hand carved. The earliest is from the 17th century, an Italian frame. Eli Wilner has the best examples from every period,” he said. “They are not his creations, but the originals, but his label is on the back. These are the ones he bases his creations on, and some have been up there for 20 or 30 years in his gallery. Some have a $400,000 price tag but they were not really meant to sell. He wanted to save them as his glossary of frames.”

Austin Helmuth stands next to an early 1900's Stanford White frame, valued at $1.4 million. Helmuth Stone Gallery will hold an auction on Jan. 28th of more than 500 period frames from the collection of Eli Wilner.

A lot of history

Perhaps the most valuable frame being auctioned is one by Stanford White, one of the most important architects of the late 19th century. White designed homes for many prominent New Yorkers, the Boston Public Library on Copley Square and the second Madison Square Garden, which was demolished in 1925.

“He would make frames to settle his mind,” Helmuth said. The frame, measuring 79 inches by 51 inches, is “probably worth about $1.4 million” though its sale estimate is $10,000-$500,000. 

On the website, one of many online auction sites Helmuth Stone uses to reach buyers around the world, the frames are cataloged and listed at prices from $200 to $500,000, depending on the style, age and size.

Helmuth said during the Depression, people would often take such frames and melt them down for the gold content. Bids have already started coming in for some of the items, but they will all be available on Jan. 28.

An unexpected path to art auctions

Helmuth and Stone spent 12 years together at Sarasota Christian School. Helmut went on to study finance and business at the University of Central Florida, where Stone majored in criminal justice, and they admit that their oldest friends are surprised by what they’re doing.

“I always enjoyed history. I was never the art guy. I was the sports guy or the basketball guy,” said Helmuth. “But we’ve fallen in love with the history and the culture, and there’s something different every day. You get to meet characters from all over the world.”

Stone said he was not much of a social person in school and college, and this career allows him “to meet people from everywhere. When I first started, it was just a job, but then it became a passion.”

Selling the past

Helmuth said they conduct auctions every six to eight weeks of antiques, fine art, jewelry, and sculpture, often from estate sales, using as many as six different online platforms. “People can bid in-house (we have limited seating) or they can bid over the phone or live online.”

Helmuth and Stone previously sold some of the larger frames that Wilner had in his collection, which is why they were among the firms contacted when the new batch of historic frames was made available for sale.

This 17th century, hand-carved and painted Italian frame is among the collection of period frames that will be auctioned later this month. Helmuth Stone Gallery will hold an auction on Jan. 28th of more than 500 period frames from the collection of Eli Wilner.

The two traveled to New York, arranged for two trucks, and loaded all the frames themselves, carrying them down from the second and third floors of Wilner’s New York gallery, before they were shipped back.

“My legs were sore for a couple of days after that,” Helmuth said.

Helmuth said the auction has drawn interest from institutions and museums around the world, as well as private buyers.

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This frame from the 18th century features different faces carved on each side.

Do private buyers already have art to fit in the frames or do they later go and find something for the frame?

“There are collectors of frames. Usually, they have paintings, but some people just hang the frames as the art itself,” he said. “Or maybe they turn them into mirrors.”

Helmuth Stone Gallery is at 1467 Main St., Sarasota. Information about the gallery and the picture frame auction is available at 941-260-9703;

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