The Market for Prints Is Poised to Thrive as Collecting Online Becomes Ubiquitous
Last week, on the first day of the International Fine Print Dealers Association’s (IFPDA) online fair, New York–based Old Masters gallery David Tunick Inc. sold an impression of Albrecht Dürer’s famous print The Rhinoceros (1515) for a six-figure sum. Versions of that canonical image have appeared at auction nearly 20 times in the last three decades, but only crossed the $100,000 threshold four times, making the sale from the IFPDA Fine Art Print Fair’s online edition (which continues through June 13th and, for full disclosure, is being hosted by Artsy) an exceptional result in any context—let alone amid a global pandemic that has forced the art market to operate almost exclusively virtually.
“People thought that was just not possible online,” Jenny Gibbs, IFPDA’s executive director, said of the sale. She added that for many of the exhibitors, the success of the Dürer print “instantly established the legitimacy of the market online.”
Among the many sectors of the art market, prints may be especially well suited to being presented, appreciated, and acquired online. The works, broadly speaking, are two-dimensional and translate well on-screen. Prices also tend to be more affordable—six-digit Dürers notwithstanding—and, for the housebound and data-obsessed collector, there’s plenty of research available for perusal.
“I don’t really drive, but the metaphor here would be: you can drive a car, but you don’t have to know the mechanics of how to change the oil,” said Lindsay Griffith, the head of Christie’s department of prints and multiples. “But if you want to go down the road and get to the deep cuts, you can do it.”
Andy Warhol, $ (9), 1982. Courtesy of Christie's.
Her department’s most recent sale, cheekily titled “Working from Home: Prints and Multiples,” brought in a total of $1.9 million, led by Andy Warhol’s dollar-signed screenprint diptych $ (9) (1982), which more than doubled its low estimate to sell for $325,000. Along with heavy hitters, the online auction also featured its fair share of deep cuts from an impressive range of artists, with pieces from the late 19th century by Edvard Munch and James Ensor, as well as works by contemporary stars like Toyin Ojih Odutola and the street artist Stik. For Griffith, the sale’s varied offerings were symptomatic of the sector’s versatility, and indicative of a growing and increasingly diverse coterie of print collectors.
“In the early 20th century to the 1970s and ’80s, there was a very specific type of print collector who would keep things in a flat file and think of them in terms of this very intellectual collecting practice,” Griffith said. “That collector is still there; however, there is an ever-widening range of people who are buying this medium.” Last year, the broadening community of collectors helped Christie’s sales of prints and multiples bring in a total of $44 million—a dramatic uptick from the previous year’s total tally of $26.4 million. As Griffith noted, “Our department…brings the largest number of new clients into the firm, and a huge way that we bring in new clients is via our e-commerce sales.”
David Hockney, Amaryllis in Vase, from Moving Focus, 1985. Courtesy of Christie's.
Auction house Phillips has similarly seen its editions and works on paper department thrive virtually, selling $10.5 million worth of editions online in 2019, a 55 percent jump from 2018. More than half of the lots sold that year, both virtually and in the salesrooms, went to online bidders.
Another important print purveyor exploring the possibilities of reaching new collectors online is the London Original Print Fair (LOPF), which typically takes place at the Royal Academy of Arts, but is holding its 35th edition digitally through May 31st. Despite the radical change in venue, the organizers have sought to preserve some elements of the fair’s “in-real-life” flavor, letting visitors navigate the offerings through galleries’ individual virtual booths. Attendees can also browse the fair via LOPF’s thematic groupings or through selections handpicked by an eclectic set of print collectors, including Hugh Harris of indie rock band the Kooks and Hannah Weiland, founder of the womenswear fashion brand Shrimps.
“Some of the collectors we’ve chosen with a very specific idea of outreach, so that it may speak to people who perhaps have never thought of a print fair, or never even heard of a print fair—perhaps they’ve come to it through interior design or because they follow somebody on Instagram,” said Helen Rosslyn, the fair’s director. She added that the fair’s online format has been well received by relatively new collectors and longtime buyers alike. “It does suggest that once you get the print buying bug, you look forward to your annual visit to a print fair, and if it had to go online, you’ll look online.”
For many members of the print community, the best way to make sure a collector gets bitten by the “print buying bug” is to show them the printmaking process—either via video or, before COVID-19, firsthand.
“The in-person experience is something people will desperately want again,” said Ann Marshall, co-owner of the Pennsylvania-based print publisher Durham Press and vice president of IFPDA’s board. Prior to the lockdown, she and the press’s other owner, Jean-Paul Russell, would bring groups of collectors to Durham Press’s facility, located an hour and a half west of New York City, for demonstrations.
“As soon as you got someone here and they were watching something being made, they were like, ‘Oh my god,’” she said. “When they see all the tools and equipment and they watch these artists make work, they get pretty jazzed up.” Such initiatives—as well as a steady pace of art fair participation—led Durham Press to have its best year ever in 2019, Marshall added. That success has proved to be a crucial financial cushion as the publisher, like most art businesses, faces the economic downturn brought on by the pandemic.
Whether witnessed in a studio or on Instagram, in-the-booth outreach at fairs and printmaking demonstrations also serve vital educational functions. Studious collectors and dealers can go down deep rabbit holes researching provenance, comparing price points, and analyzing condition reports if they so desire. This level of detail—as well as the sheer number of works circulating in the print market—can be overwhelming for novice collectors, however.
“It is a more elaborate medium—the way the prints are catalogued is much more complicated than a painting, the way we talk about condition is probably a bit more complicated, the authenticating process too—so how do you digest all that for a collecting audience?” Griffith said.
For Diane Villani, an independent print dealer based in New York who also works with Hauser & Wirth on its artists’ print projects, the conversation often starts with a specific question. “At almost every fair I’d get the same question: ‘Where’s the original? I don’t buy reproductions.’ And every time I would then explain the process,” she said, noting that younger generations of collectors seem better equipped to understand the distinctions between prints, unique works, and reproductions. “Art is being taught a whole lot more in universities, even studio art,” she added. “Somewhere along the line, even if you’re a lawyer, you’ve probably dipped your toe into art.”
And just as attitudes among collectors are evolving, print dealers are also adopting new practices and policies, from online viewing rooms to transparent pricing. At the concurrent online print fairs, publicly listed prices abound—from a superb 2006 Bridget Riley print being shown by RAW Editions for £15,000 ($18,400) at the London Original Print Fair, to the Rembrandt print La Petite Tombe (ca. 1657) on offer for $125,000 from New York dealer Harris Schrank Fine Prints at the IFPDA Fine Art Print Fair. For both fair organizers, convincing participating dealers that being up-front about pricing is in their best interest was easy—at least most of the time.
“The members who participate in other fairs, like Frieze and Armory, got it right away, because that is where everyone’s going,” Gibbs of IFPDA said. “It was a little bit harder with some of our colleagues who are selling Old Masters and more traditional work, because it’s just not done.…I had a very funny email exchange with one of my dealers in Berlin, where I said, ‘We really suggest that you post prices because the millennial collectors won’t ask,’ and he wrote back, ‘I will send you a case of champagne for every millennial who buys a work from my booth.’”
If digitally savvy collectors keep making major purchases of Old Master prints online, as occurred on the IFPDA fair’s first day, it may well be that a certain German print dealer will be on the hook for a lot of champagne.