Art Market

Why Francisco de Goya’s Prints Are a Safe Bet for Cautious Collectors

Samuel McIlhagga
Sep 10, 2020 4:48PM

Francisco de Goya, La Tauromaquia, 1816. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Prints and drawings on paper are a frequently overlooked source of aesthetic pleasure, reasonable pricing, and consistent value within an artist’s oeuvre. Indeed, many major art-historical figures currently have works on sale for less than $10,000. This includes the tempestuous Spanish painter Francisco de Goya (1746–1828).

For the risk-averse art collector, an object with less individual value but a longer financial and critical consensus can supply their particular demands. Though living artists such as KAWS and Jeff Koons fetch a higher price tag, they have not sustained their value and critical reputation over hundreds of years the way an artist like Goya has. “Collectors, and especially new collectors, have great confidence in buying this way from established names,” said Wendy Goldsmith of London-based Goldsmith Art Advisory, “especially when there is so much information available online.” For fans of the artist, Goya’s prints represent the perfect middle-market buy.


Goya’s themes of war, insurgency, superstition, political revolution, and personal violence have remained perennial human concerns that have found resonance time and time again. His “Black Paintings” (ca. 1819–23), produced at the Quinta del Sordo, are a benchmark of existential dread. “To me, he is one of the defining figures of the 19th century,” said the late critic Robert Hughes in his 2002 BBC film Goya: Crazy Like a Genius. “He looks forward into the 20th century and tells us what we have in common with our past and with our ancestors. There are others who do this; Beethoven and Dickens. But in the visual arts Goya reigns supreme.”

According to Artnet’s “Intelligence Report Spring 2020,”a number of factors make more conservative purchases like Goya prints appealing in today’s market. For one, there’s the overall strength of the market’s middle and lower sectors. In addition, there has been a simultaneous increase in sales volume and a decrease in sales value at auction for the first time since 2014, reversing years of consolidation of value at the top. This means that higher volume, lower price-point works like Goya’s prints might have a greater chance of success in an auction market.Goldsmith owes this trend to a greater number of private sales for high-value works that fall outside publicly available data sets composed of gallery and auction transactions.

Francisco de Goya, La Tauromaquia, 1816. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Goya’s prints are suited to a market characterized by high volume, competitive value, and free circulation. His thematic series, which include “Los Caprichos” (1797–98), “Desastres de la Guerra” (1810–20), “La Tauromaquia” (1816), and “Los Disparates” (ca. 1815–23), range from 18 to 82 plates each.

The artist’s intensely satirical debut series, “Los Caprichos,” was initially created in order to castigate Spanish society and its superstitions. Ironically, however, the plates ended up being purchased by the royal family. “[Goya] put the series of prints on sale in 1799; they were advertised in the Spanish newspaper,” said Reva Wolf, a Goya specialist and professor of art history at SUNY New Paltz. “He sold the entire set for 320 reales. Aristocrats who were patrons of Goya acquired copies. The Duke and Duchess of Osuna had four sets.”

Francisco de Goya, La Tauromaquia, 1816. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

In 1803, Goya gave all his copper plates from the series to King Charles IV’s royal engraving collection, the Calcografía Nacional. Though scholars have since speculated whether this was a way for the royal family to put Goya’s biting and blasphemous works out of circulation, the acquisition ultimately enabled Goya’s work to retain its value in the long term.

According to a study by the late Goya scholar Nigel Glendinning, from 1816 onward, Goya’s sales became remarkably resilient. Persistent demand for his work led to many prints being produced after his death in 1828.

“The fact that several posthumous editions were made creates some interesting challenges for our assessment of the prints today, and how we value them,” said Wolf. “The prints became especially popular in the 1870s, not only within Spain, but also abroad.” Wolf noted that Glendinning believed an increase in demand was linked to a rise in liberalism on the continent.

The prints that passed the political and religious censors of its time have been sold both historically as sets and more recently as separate prints, allowing them to be marketed at both high and middle price points. According to Wolf, the trend of selling individual prints at a cheaper price is a fairly recent innovation. “There was a case of a few prints being removed from some sets put on sale in Valencia in the mid-1820s because of religious censorship…when they were returned [having not been sold] there was a concern about their value being reduced because of the excision,” Wolf said.

Recently, an individual print, Dios se lo Pague a Usted (Aveugle enlevé sur les cornes d’un taureau) (ca. 1804), went on offer at Sylvan Cole Gallery for €975 ($1,150). Meanwhile, a set of 33 “Tauromaquia” (meaning “bull-fighting”) prints, found at the Château de Montigny in a ledger among military cartoons, sold at Sotheby’s for £512,750 ($641,635) in 2017.

During the 20th century, industrialist and art connoisseur Norton Simon obsessively acquired the artist’s work, amassing a collection of nearly 1,400 prints, three paintings, and one double-sided drawing. The sheer volume of art he acquired, even adjusted for inflation, is a fraction of the amount required to amass a comparable collection of individual pieces by contemporary marquee artists like Koons, KAWS, or Banksy. Indeed, from the 1950s until the 1980s, Simon acquired over 8,000 works of art including work by Goya, and at the outset only spent $1.5 million on his first 80 acquisitions.

Francisco de Goya, La Tauromaquia, 1816. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

This combination of respectable old-world connotations and accessible prices has led the British art duo Jake and Dinos Chapman to satirize, or perhaps restate, Goya’s powerful presence by defacing and doodling on a first-edition set of Goya’s “Desastres de la Guerra.” Their artistic interventions include screaming clown faces, collages of hyenas, and splashes of colorful glitter paint. For many, the Chapmans’ adaptations heighten the absurd horror of Goya’s original depictions of the bloody Peninsular War.

Goya print collectors, such as Simon, would likely be baffled by the Chapman brothers’ particular brand of reverence for the fabled artist. Goya himself, however, might have cracked a smile at the continued pop-culture relevance and market consistency of his work.

Samuel McIlhagga
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Jenna Gribbon, Luncheon on the grass, a recurring dream, 2020. Jenna Gribbon, April studio, parting glance, 2021. Jenna Gribbon, Silver Tongue, 2019