Collecting original art prints by famous artists has become increasingly popular now that people realize that they can actually afford it.
There are no Rembrandt paintings to be had, at any price, but you don’t have live in a palace to own an original Rembrandt etching. Original prints by famous artists such as Pablo Picasso or Henri Matisse can be surprisingly affordable as well.
So if you’re a new collector of original prints (or you’d like to be) read through this article before making any purchases—it may help you avoid a costly mistake.
1. Don’t buy a reproduction passed off as an original
This is obvious, but how can you tell what’s a reproduction and what’s an original? One easy test is to examine the print under a magnifying glass or jeweler’s loupe.
If the image breaks up into hundreds of tiny dots (called half-tones) then what you really have is a photo-offset lithograph, the most common type of reproduction. Your desktop printer will do something similar.
A genuine stone lithograph on the other hand will appear solid and substantial, even under magnification. However, not all types of reproductions have half-tones, so. . .
2. Check the size of the print against its documentation
The measurements of a known print are always documented in the catalogue raisonné of that particular artist’s graphic work. It’s a matter of record, and the size should not change from one impression to another.
Take a look at the auction records and compare the print you’d like to buy against others offered on the market. . . if the size doesn’t measure up, don’t buy it!
It may be helpful to know that etchings are measured by the platemark (the indentation around the image) and lithographs, silkscreens and woodcuts are usually measured by the image size itself (or by the total size of the sheet if there are no margins). Heliogravure, photogravure or collotype reproductions are often reproduced in a size smaller than the original.
3. Don’t automatically assume it’s a 1st edition
It may indeed have been printed from the artist’s original plate, stone or wood block (and thus would still be considered an original print). But many prints—just like books—went through several editions.
An experienced dealer will know by the type of paper, the presence or absence of watermarks, the total size of the sheet and the overall quality of the impression. First editions are almost always more valuable, so don’t assume. . . often this step requires a bit of detective work.
4. Check to see if it’s a lifetime impression
Lifetime impressions are simply prints that were created during the artist’s lifetime. These prints will usually be more valuable, especially in the case of Old Masters like Albrecht Durer, Jacques Callot and Rembrandt.
But don’t avoid posthumous printings entirely—they can be often an excellent value. In addition, keep in mind that the date shown in the image (if the artist dated his composition) is the date of execution, not necessarily the date of printing.
5. Don’t be fooled by a Certificate of Authenticity
Although it has become a trend for dealers to issue their own Certificates of Authenticity, these certificates really guarantee very little and are so easy to print up that they mean little (no matter how pretty the gold seal looks).
Far more useful is anything from the actual publisher of the piece, such as a justification de tirage or colophon.
The publisher’s colophon is a page found in almost all twentieth century portfolios or volumes containing original prints, especially if they are limited editions. This will state when, where and by whom it was published, the size of the edition and the medium (lithograph, etching, etc.).
A colophon should also indicate if any impressions were signed by hand, which is helpful to know as well. And speaking of signatures. . .
6. Never assume it was really signed by the artist
Since a print signed in pencil by the artist is worth more than the same composition unsigned, too many unscrupulous people have taken their genuine prints and forged the artist’s signature.
Be especially careful when buying “signed” pieces by A-list artists such as Picasso, Joan Miro, Chagall, Salvador Dali, Matisse, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, etc.
Check the number as well. If a print is numbered 17/100 (the 17th impression from a total edition of 100) but the documented size of that edition was only 50, then something isn’t right!
Do as much research as you can; if a deal sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Unsigned impressions aren’t always bad, either. Savvy art buyers will purposely look for unsigned impressions of the same print—knowing that aesthetically there is no difference, and the savings can be enormous.
7. Take time to research and understand the medium
Lithographs, etchings, woodcuts, silkscreens, pochoirs, linocuts, drypoints, aquatints and mezzotints are all prints, but each medium is created differently to achieve a different artistic effect.
There is too much to explain in just a few words, but you’ll want to study up on this before making any major purchase.
For instance, find out if the same composition was first executed in another medium. A print may be a genuine lithograph, but if the artist first composed the work as a painting, watercolor or drawing then the lithograph is considered a work “after” the artist, not an original. (And would be worth less.)
8. All impressions of the same print are NOT equal
Some impressions are strong and lifelike, while other impressions of the same print are are weak. This is especially true of etchings and drypoints, because the etched copper plate can’t support many printings before becoming worn down.
This is a commonly recognized issue for Old Master prints (which have undergone successive editions through the centuries) but it can also hold true for Modern prints.
9. Before buying, shop around for a better price
The internet is your friend. Don’t pay gallery retail if you can avoid it—first, check online and google the artist’s name, the title of the piece, and the year of publication.
Prints by definition are issued in multiples and you might be pleasantly surprised at how much prices can vary. Just make sure you’re talking about the exact same piece—many prints have generic titles such as Tete de femme (Head of a Woman) and often the artist did several variations on the same theme. Most of the time, all you’ll need to do is check the measurements and catalogue reference to make sure.
10. Don’t buy a print solely for investment
Buy art because you like it. And when it appreciates in value (which it probably will) consider it a fringe benefit.
That being said, I’m very optimistic about the art market in general and the original print market in particular. Even in these difficult times, art values tend to rise year-by-year as sought-after pieces become ever more scarce.