Recovering Gold from Old Paintings – What We Can Learn from an Italian Renaissance Painter

The painter Carlo Crivelli is not as famous as Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael or many other painters of the Italian renaissance. But he is getting a lot of attention this month, thanks to an exhibition of his work at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston.

Crivelli was born in about 1435, died in 1495, and produced a lifetime’s worth of magnificent religious paintings.

Gold and Carlo Crivelli

Saint George Slaying the Dragon, by Carlo Crivelli, 1470, Tempera, gold and silver on panel. Courtesy of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston.  

Saint George Slaying the Dragon, by Carlo Crivelli, 1470, Tempera, gold and silver on panel. Courtesy of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston.

Why are we blogging about Crivelli today? It is because of his extensive use of gold in his paintings – not gold-colored paint, but real gold. He used the precious metal in remarkable ways. He found a way to not only apply gold leaf to areas of his paintings, but to etch beautiful geometric patterns into those gold surfaces. The effect is pretty breathtaking.

Crivelli developed other remarkable ways to include gold in his paintings too. If you take a close look at some of the jewelry that the people shown in his paintings are wearing, you will see that it is presented in a remarkably three-dimensional way. It looks exactly like real, solid jewelry that is made of gold. Can it be? Did Crivelli actually stick pieces of gold jewelry onto the surface of his paintings?

All that Shimmers is Real Gold in Crivelli’s Paintings

While Crivelli did use real gold in his masterpieces, he only used a very small amount of it, in the form of gold leaf that had been pounded into extremely thin films. And when he was working his masterly skills to make jewelry look real, he was only applying thin layers of gold leaf over underlying three-dimensional forms that he had built up from paint.

We have to remember that gold is so malleable that just a tiny quantity of it can be beaten into extremely large sheets of gold leaf. Here’s a fun fact that illustrates the point. The huge exterior dome of the Georgia Capital is covered in real gold leaf, but the total weight of all the gold on that vast surface adds up to only about 20 ounces. So when it comes to adorning surfaces with gold leaf, a tiny amount of gold goes a very long way.

Unlocking Value from Items Covered in Gold Leaf

If you come across an old frame – or even an old painting – that has surfaces covered with gold leaf, chances are that the quantities of gold it contains will be too small to recycle for much money. Also, chances are pretty good that your discovery will be worth more as a collectible, or as an artwork, than as a source of recyclable precious gold.

But . . . you never know. If you come across items made with gold leaf – or a book of sheets of gold leaf, which sometimes crop up when old frame shops close their doors and go out of business – give us a call at 800-426-2344. We are here to help you determine the value of precious metals, and there is no obligation of any kind when you call us. Please mention this blog post when you call and ask about free or discounted shipping costs when you send your discoveries to us for testing.

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How Much Gold Does the Catholic Church Own?