What Determines the Value of a Print?
A standout print by Pablo Picasso can sell for $5 million at auction, while a lesser-known work by the same artist can go for as little as $500. What makes one print more expensive than another?
From elaborate techniques to missing signatures, there are many factors that can boost or lower the price of a print. Whether you’re buying new prints or consigning old ones, this guide will help you better understand the value of these works.
Printers Yasu Shibata and Justin Israels at the Pace Editions workshop in Manhattan. Image Courtesy of Pace Prints.
In the beginning of the 20th century, artists began producing their fine art prints in limited editions, so that each individual work would retain its value over time. When editions are small, the individual artworks in the edition are more rare—and, as a result, more expensive.
Prints from large editions (often, 200 or above) are less valuable, as it’s unlikely that the artist was directly involved in the production of each print. These works tend to be categorized as “multiples” or “reproductions,” rather than “fine art prints.”
Prints featuring labor-intensive or innovative processes are also more valuable. For example, prints with multiple colors often take longer to make—and generally reach higher prices in the market.
Very large prints, especially those greater than 24 by 40 inches (60.96 by 101.60 centimeters), are especially difficult to produce, requiring elaborate techniques, one-of-a-kind printing presses, and the hands of a master printmaker. For these reasons, the biggest prints are often the most expensive.
A print’s value can also be influenced by the esteem of the print shop that collaborated with the artist to create the work. Some of the most well-regarded print shops include Pace Prints, Crown Point Press, Gemini G.E.L., Tamarind Institute, Edition Copenhagen, Universal Limited Art Editions, Mixografia, and Paulson Fontaine Press.
The vast majority of prints are works on paper, which makes them prone to water stains, fading, creasing, trimming, and other damages.
It’s rare to find a historic (or secondary market) print in perfect condition. So, before you buy one of these works, you should ask the gallery or auction specialist for a condition report. If the print you want is in poor condition, this doesn’t need to be a deal breaker. Oftentimes, these prints will be available at (or can be negotiated down to) much more affordable prices.
When you’re buying a contemporary print straight from the artist’s studio or print shop, you can expect the work to be sold in perfect condition.
Like all artworks, fine art prints are more valuable when they are hand-signed by the artist. (It doesn’t matter much if the signature is located on the front of the print, the back of the print, or on its accompanying Certificate of Authenticity.) Large edition prints might have printed or stamped signatures, and these will be relatively more affordable.
Signing fine art prints only became standard practice in the 20th century—and many historic prints lack their artists’ signatures. In these cases, you should ask the gallery or auction specialist for other signs of authenticity before you make your purchase.
Along with trends in the broader art market, a print’s edition, technique, condition, and signature will determine whether it costs $500, $5 million, or somewhere in between. When you find a print you like, you can look to these essential details to contextualize its price and estimate its lasting value.
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