5 Essential Tips for Collecting Prints
Artist have long supplemented their larger practice by making prints: original works, usually on paper, created in numbered editions and produced in collaboration with some kind of press. For would-be collectors intimidated by the impenetrable price points of the runaway train that is the contemporary art market, the print market can be a godsend. Jeff Koons’s Balloon Dog (Orange) (1994–2000) may have sold for $58.4 million at auction, but smaller porcelain multiples of the iconic work published in an edition of 2,300 sell for just $10,000. And it’s still a Koons.
But diving into collecting print works can also be daunting, as there’s a whole constellation of print galleries, print fairs, and print auctions to navigate. Here, a few experts in the field answer key questions new print collectors should ask.
So, aren’t prints just, like, copies of an artist’s big, famous works?
Nope! Prints are neither copies nor posters. Rather, they are distinct works independent from any other body of the artist’s work, an image that is made, usually with a plate, and then transferred to paper via ink as many times as the edition requires. And while the fact that they are made in multiples can make the whole endeavor feel a bit less special than the romance of a painting forged from the hand of the artist, print dealers who work directly with artists say it’s a medium that allows for exciting and fresh experimentation.
“A lot of people really just think that prints are reproductions of existing paintings, which is really not the case at all,” says Rachel Gladfelter, a director at Pace Prints Chelsea. “With a place like us, we have studios where artists will come in and work with incredible master printmakers, and maybe they’ll have an idea of a drawing that they start from, but a lot of times they don’t. They just sort of experiment.”
Alexandra Slattery, a sales manager at SoHo print gallery Two Palms, says that priority number one is educating new print collectors on the merits of the form, so they understand that it’s not just a cheaper version of an original work on paper, or a smaller reproduction of a painting.
“We deal with a lot of people who come in and say, ‘Oh my god, that’s $30,000? Why! It’s a reproduction,’” Slattery says. “We spend a lot of time explaining to people that prints are their own medium, and that artists take printmaking very seriously—that it adds to and contributes to their work as a whole. It’s not just a scan of a painting that’s been made, that’s been printed out so that people can get it for cheaper.”
Gladfelter mentions that some artists she’s worked with get inspired by the process and integrate it into their larger practice. Shara Hughes got hooked on ghost printing—where translucent color gets scattered on the print after the second transfer. And Leonardo Drew, an artist who shows with Sikkema Jenkins & Co. and usually makes sculptures, adopted a new material into his arsenal.
“[Drew] had an idea to work with paper pulp and make it into a sculptural form, and he made them into small editions,” Gladfelter says. “It’s really become a part of his work as a whole.”
Is a print labeled “1” more valuable than a print labeled “100”?
Not in the slightest. Works are printed one at a time, and each is assigned an individual number, but the print labeled “1/100” has the same value as the print labeled “100/100”.
“There’s the myth that’s floating around that we’re always trying to dispel: that a lower edition number is better,” says Slattery of Two Palms, which is a reliable presence at fairs such as Art Basel in Hong Kong and The Armory Show, and has collaborated with artists such as Koons, Matthew Barney, and Peter Doig on exclusive new prints, which range in price from $2,500 to $100,000.
“The misconception actually dates back to more than 100 years ago, when prints were made using copper plates,” explains Slattery. “Because copper is a soft metal, as the edition was printed, the plate would compress in the press, and so the higher edition numbers would lack some of the detail of the first few editions.”
Some presses no longer use copper, and instead use steel-plated copper plates to make sure no detail is lost, Slattery explains, and the updated process is able to create editions where each work is perfectly identical, rendering them equal in value, as long as they don’t get damaged.
Oftentimes editions are not numbered in the order in which they were printed, further deemphasizing the idea that an edition with a lower number is more valuable. “People still think that getting the first or the second edition is going to be worth more, or [that] it’s a better print, but that’s not the case,” Slattery says.
After the full printing, the gallery goes over all the prints to make sure they are all identical, and the artist authenticates them as their work, all of it, equally.
So, where do I hang prints in my house? And how do I take care of them?
Having accompanied a number of her New York-based clients to their homes for the installation of their new prints, Gladfelter recognizes a key advantage to collecting prints: They fit in a typically tiny urban abode.
“It’s New York City, there’s not a ton of wallspace, so prints provide a scale that’s really great for people,” she says. “You know, you have very well-known artists, like James Turrell—you can’t necessarily really have one of his installations in your home, but you can have a print by him.”
Lindsay Griffith, a prints and multiples specialist at Christie’s, notes that because they’re typically on paper, prints require some degree of care, whether they’re in storage or on a wall. Because works on paper are fragile, prints must be kept in a frame when on display and stored properly in appropriate temperatures to ensure they don’t get damaged.
“The first thing is, when you’re buying works of edition, you should keep condition in mind,” she says. “You need to remember that works on paper are living, breathing things, and they need to be handled with care and framed properly, no matter how much you’re spending on it. It’s very worth it for the long-term value.”
Why are some prints pretty cheap, while others are as expensive as original works?
It’s the same reason why the contemporary market has such a wide range: Some works are of eye-popping quality and scarcity, and others are of middling quality and easy to source. The different price points entice even the big game hunters to wade into the print collecting scene and pick up the high-priced items.
“Traditionally, it’s been seen as a gateway point to the art world, and it’s certainly still perceived that way by many, but I think that’s a bit of a misconception, because people collect prints at any stage of their collecting career,” Griffith says.
Griffith mentions that the world record for a print is $5.12 million, achieved in 2011 when Pablo Picasso’s La femme qui pleure, I (1938) sold at Christie’s for more than double its high estimate. There were 15 made at the time; it commanded this mind-boggling price simply due to its quality.
“The reason for a higher value in the printmaking field is the same as they are in other categories: rarity, the complexity of how it was made, and then the nature of how commercial the composition is,” Griffith says.
Such range is evident in the biannual prints and multiples evening auctions—the prints and multiples sale at Christie’s in April raised a total of $7.68 million, with prices ranging from $3,000 for a series of prints by Takashi Murakami to $516,500 for a series of nine signed engravings by Louise Bourgeois. Andy Warhol had a good showing, too, with 11 works selling in the six-figure range, including The Scream (After Munch) (1984). The screenprint version of the Edvard Munch classic was intended as an edition that was never produced in full, resulting in what the lot essay referred to as “a small number of unique impressions.” It sold for $275,000.
“It was an edition that was never realized, and each color combination is unique, so obviously for the Warhol market, that’s going to give you a bit more of a premium that something when it’s an edition of 250, for example,” Griffith says.
Okay, so prints are awesome. Where do I buy one?
Lots of places! The world of print-buying is rich and varied. Griffith did her due diligence and plugged the prints and multiples sales at Christie’s, particularly because the work will all be on view in the auction house’s galleries beforehand, giving potential buyers a chance to investigate the quality in person.
“Coming to auction is a great way to get started in the medium, and seeing auction views, particularly for the main season sales, you’re going to see the largest spectrum of works on view,” Griffith says.
There are also many online sales featuring prints. Had you been bidding on lots in Christie’s contemporary edition sale, which took place in cyberspace from July 9th to 17th, you could have nabbed Richard Phillips’s Flower Mirror Print (2013) for just $750, where a unique work of his has sold for $384,000 at auction.
If you prefer to buy prints in real life, annual print fairs are the ticket. The Fine Art Print Fair opens October 25th at the Javits Center in New York, during what is referred to as New York Print Week. Or swing by your local print gallery. Slattery says that Two Palms often offers benefit prints, or editions that artists make that have a lower price point, with the proceeds going to a charity. The gallery has collaborated on benefit prints with Mel Bochner and Richard Prince, and it’s the perfect way for a collecting neophyte to come in and start their collection with a single purchase.
“It’s an easy entry point, as they’re usually lower-priced, but then you’re still getting a work by a big artist,” Slattery says. “It’s really just a good way to test the water, and see what you like, without necessarily making a big financial commitment.”
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that presses no longer use copper; while many now use steel-plated copper plates, copper plates are sometimes still used.