A Collector’s Three-Word Guide to the Print Market
Legitimacy, Quality, Scarcity are words that matter if you’re interested in collecting prints. Understand how these concepts apply to the market for multiples and you will know how to separate the gems from the duds.
In my last article, I discussed the different types of prints and the techniques used to make them. In this issue I explain how prints are valued and the things you need to know to collect them with confidence.
Prints provide an affordable option to collecting expensive unique works of art. To put this in perspective, consider the work of Robert Rauschenberg. He’s a famous artist whose paintings sell at auction for millions of dollars. Nonetheless, it is possible to purchase one of his prints for under a couple of thousand dollars, and it’s still an original Rauschenberg. On top of that, because the artist has a strong secondary market, you can resell that print down the road and it’s likely to maintain or increase its value over time. Just remember the work may also go down in value if it falls out of fashion or if the market as a whole drops. My advice is to only buy art you love and to never buy anything with the expectation that it will go up in value. Also, before rushing off to the nearest gallery to invest in a print, please read the rest of this article.
I use this term to encompass all of the issues that pertain to whether a given print is safe to buy. It includes things like clear title, authenticity, provenance, correct edition, signature, and whether or not a print was made during the artist’s lifetime. Prints are reproductions by nature. This makes it easy for people to cheat and create unauthorized copies in a number of ways. The difference between a legitimate print and a forgery, for instance, can be as simple as whether or not the artist authorized it.
The first things to look at are the signature (or artist’s hand stamp) and the edition number. These should be written by hand at the bottom of the print, either in the margin or on the image itself. If either the signature or the edition number appear to be reproduced mechanically, that is a good sign that you are not looking at an original work of art. Except for photographs, if a print is signed but not numbered, it is most likely a monotype, unique print that is not editioned. If the print is numbered but unsigned, it could mean that it was printed posthumously or that it was part of a set that was only signed on the first page. Either way, the lack of a signature usually diminishes the value of the print.
The edition number is frequently written as a fraction. The mark 10/80 would mean that you are looking at print number 10 out of an edition of 80 prints. There should only be one number 10/80 in existence for a given image. If the artist is well known, the print may be listed in a catalogue raisonné and it would be possible to verify the markings and the edition size. A print that is marked incorrectly in any manner should be suspect. Typically, artists and their print publishers go to great lengths to avoid making mistakes in their editions. Finally, check the provenance. If the chain of ownership is well documented, there is a much lower likelihood of problems arising. If you have doubts or if you are considering a major purchase, consult an expert.
The Children’s Dance, 1893, By Lucien Pissarro,
Woodcut printed in yellow on Japanese paper, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
The artist’s initials are affixed separately by hand in the lower right hand and the print number 73 is written by hand on the lower left. The edition size is not marked
A bright lithograph of two nudes, by Wallasse Ting
Numbered 85/90, signed, and dated in charcoal on the lower right.
Legitimacy issues aside, quality is the primary determinant of the demand for a print. How big is the print? What condition is it in? How old is it? What paper or other medium is it printed on? Did the artist embellish it additionally by hand? All other factors being equal, some images are more popular and sell for a higher price. Research auction price databases to find out which of the artist’s prints command the highest prices. If possible, do a side-by-side comparison of several prints by the same artist. You will see differences even between prints of the same edition.
There is a misconception that early prints in an edition will be of a higher quality than later ones. This is generally only applicable to certain old intaglio prints made with copper plates, where the plate’s engraved edges would wear down as the edition progressed. With modern techniques, number 100/100 should print as sharply as number 1/100. The final judgement of quality should be in the eye of the beholder – your eye – but there’s nothing wrong with asking for help from someone more knowledgeable.
Scarcity is determined by how many prints from a given edition are available on the market. Sometimes artists release prints in large editions just to keep prices low for the general public. The inverse is true too. As demand for an artist’s work outpaces supply, prices go up. If an artist produces fewer prints in an edition, the value of each print from that edition will be higher. A print will sell for a much higher price in an edition of five than it would in an edition of 100. Monotypes are unique works of art and are priced as such.
Two of the Most Majestic Beings Ever, from the exhibit Rise of the Butterfly, by Layla Love is a large lithographic monotype printed on 24 K gold leaf over woodblock. This complex multimedia print is a unique work of art that pushes the boundaries of printmaking.
The print market is complicated but the information I have outlined here will get you off to a good start. Happy hunting! If you have questions or comments or need advice, I would love to hear from you. Please do not hesitate to contact me through Artst.net or through my website www.mahboubianfineart.com.