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Buying & Collecting Original Prints

BUCKS Magazine: April/May 2008

Prints are complex, beautiful and democratic works of art. You can purchase an original art print for less than one thousand dollars or more than one hundred thousand dollars. They afford the best chance - for those of us who are not multi-millionaires – to own important, original work by emerging or well-known artists. Small wonder that the print market is alluring to both experienced collectors and to those making their way into the art market.

The idea of an original print is confusing, because the word 'print' has become associated with reproductive works made for commercial purposes. So what exactly is an original print?
Original prints are works hand-made by an artist or made under his control, often in collaboration with a master printmaker who assists with the technical aspects of inking the print’s surface and running it through a press. They are not reproduced from another work of art. Rather, the artist draws on a surface such as stone or a metal plate. This surface is inked, a sheet of paper placed over it and together, the two are run through a press from which the image is printed a number of times.

There have been great painter-sculptor-printmakers from the 15th century onwards. Many of the best known artists in history have been prolific print-makers: the Old Masters Dürer, Goya and Rembrandt; the Modernists Picasso and Matisse; and pop artists of the 1960s like Lichtenstein and Warhol. Many major living artists - Lucien Freud, David Hockney, Jake and Dinos Chapman and Tracey Emin to name but a few - are gifted print-makers.

You’ll often hear original prints referred to by the technique that was used to produce them: etching, engraving, lithograph or screenprint. Lithography, where the artist draws on a stone or plate using a greasy medium, was hugely popular in Paris at the turn-of-the-twentieth-century when Henri Toulouse-Lautrec and Pierre Bonnard used it to design posters for cabarets and revues. Screenprints (often called silkscreens or serigraphs) were made famous by Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein. They took a commercial process (essentially a stencil) commonly used for printing labels and t-shirts and made art with it by layering stencils that allowed sequential elements or colors to be printed. Warhol often applied a photosensitive material on screens and then projected a photograph, turning his screens into filmic negatives from which he could print images of his favorite subjects, including celebrities and money.

The original art print as we know it today was created in the late nineteenth century, when the limited edition was invented. James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) is credited as the first artist to number and sign each separate sheet that he approved, a practice he borrowed from manufacturers of commercial engraved reproductions. (Previously, editions had been entirely unlimited. That’s why major engravings by William Hogarth can be bought for modest sums - they were pulled from plates still in use 100 years and more after his death.)

Since Whistler’s time, an artist frequently enters into an agreement with a publisher to produce an edition, with the publisher covering the costs of the materials and the workshop time, in return for the right to sell the prints. Between them, they decide the size of the edition. Each print in the edition is signed and numbered by the artist. Once the edition is complete the original block, plate or stone should be defaced or destroyed so that no more can be made.

Because original prints usually exist in multiples, there is a difference between the price of a painting and print by a given artist, but original prints can still be extremely limited and extremely valuable. If a certain print is in demand and the supply is no longer there, the price will go up. Thus the “limited edition” has proven a very successful method of creating value.

Price also very much depends on the condition of the print. Works on paper are extremely delicate and can easily be damaged by mishandling, poor framing, contact with acidic materials, exposure to strong light and the passage of time. Prints in good condition are more sought after by collectors and therefore their prices are higher.

Here are some tips if you thinking of collecting original prints:
Buy directly from the artist, from the artist’s publisher or from an auction house or dealer that can authenticate the “provenance” (the documented history of a work of art from its production to the present) of a work of art.

Ask about the catalogue raisonné, which is a complete registry of the artist's works. Many major artists of the 20th C. have a catalogue raisonné dedicated solely to their original prints. It will list the title and date of each work, the technique, the type of paper, the size of the paper, the edition number, where the print is signed and whether the signature is in pencil or pen etc, the name of the printer and the publisher. Check the work you are buying against this.

Inspect for tears, stains and foxing (a fungus caused by damp conditions). Even if the printed image is in good condition, if the edge of the print is covered by a mount, have it taken it out of the frame. The condition of the paper around the print is worth knowing, too as the value of a print can change drastically if it has been trimmed . Check the colors to see if they are fresh and not faded and weigh this against what you are being asked to pay.

Ask if the print is framed using acid-free materials. If not, you should change this immediately.
Expect to pay less for an early number and more for a later number: the price goes up as the number available for purchase go down.

Know that the edition number doesn’t matter if you decide to resell. That’s because modern and contemporary printing plates do not wear out.

Remember that fakes abound. Beware “original” prints by Marc Chagall and Salvador Dali. (Many if not most of Salvador Dali prints were initially blank sheets of paper signed by Dali, then the publisher would select various images from his paintings.)

Beware misuse of the word “original.” You will see a lot of “original” Giclée prints in “limited editions” being sold in malls and online. Most often, what is being sold is in fact not original, but a high quality digital reproduction. Still, you should know that some working artists do use Giclée, as well as other digital methods. Artistic experimentation in digital media will continue to expand the definition of what can legitimately be called “original.”

As always, buy the best of an artist’s work that you can afford. It will hold or gain value more readily and reliably than will a lesser image.

Caring for Prints
Have your print professionally framed using acid-free conservation materials and conservation glass in place of regular glass to filter the UV rays that cause fading. Do not use harsh cleaning agents to clean UVA glass as this removes the UVA protection. Make sure the print is not in direct contact with glass or Plexiglas.

If you choose to keep your print unframed, it should be handled using cotton gloves. Prints shipped to you rolled in tubes should be flattened as soon as possible and stored flat, using envelopes, sleeves and boxes of archival quality to prevent contamination of their contents.
Display away from direct sunlight and keep cool and dry.

 

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Miriam Tucker
(609) 397-9374 ext 241
 

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