A primer on evaluating prints

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At my appraisal events, I often hear people say, “Oh that’s not valuable, it’s just a print!” Well, these folks might have a change of heart when they review some actual sales records for valuable items that are often discounted as just prints.

Recently, a Currier & Ives lithograph sold for $76,375, Picasso’s etching of the “Frugal Repast” sold for $123,000, and a set of 10 Toulouse-Lautrec lithographs brought home $882,500. All prints! Prints can bring real money in the art market if you know what you have and what it’s worth.

In the art market, most people believe that because there is more than one copy of a printed image that there is little value to all prints, based on the inherently reproductive nature of print making. Printing dates back to the Renaissance, when prints served as a way to distribute information and imagery. The Dutch baroque master, Rembrandt, realized that prints were a good vehicle for marketing his talents and creating new marketable images with just a few changes to an existing plate. Over time, modern and contemporary artists continued the tradition of producing prints. Today, there are numerous collectors of high quality, high-priced prints.

In addition to the somewhat sordid history of print making, the term “print” has evolved into a catch-all term in the field. Many people don’t know what print means, or that it actually identifies numerous processes. A print may be an etching, engraving, serigraph, lithograph, mezzotint, silkscreen, woodcut, drypoint, monotype, photogravure, gelatin silver, aquatint or collotype, and the list goes on. In short, there are many different types of prints, and like all other works of art and antiques, some are valuable and some are not.

It is accurate to describe a framed Currier & Ives print as a lithograph and it is just as accurate to say that you have a lithograph-decorated tin wind-up toy from the 1930s. As well, a silkscreen print may be both a multi-million dollar image of a Campbell’s soup can by Andy Warhol or the image that your favorite teenager is wearing on his Old Navy T-shirt that cost $7.99. They are all prints.

When collecting prints, a tried-and-true rule is that prints are judged on the quality of the impression and the paper, as well as the integrity of the process. If you have a print with a fraction marked on the bottom, that fraction represents the print’s number within the print run. The numerator tells you how early or late in the print run your print was pulled off the machine. The denominator tells you how many prints are included in the entire print run or how many pulls occurred. For instance, Rembrandt mainly worked in small print runs. He typically produced prints in a run of no more than 12 impressions. There would be only 12 prints pulled off of one print plate. On the other hand, print runs could also be very large like those by Thomas Kinkade. Some of his print runs may swell to 5,000 impressions of the same image. In this case, you and 4,999 of your friends may have the same print – doesn’t do much for value.

For value, you want both of those numbers on your numbered print to be low numbers, like 1/10. That 1/10 would indicate you have the first print off the press in a small print run of only 10 prints. This mark shows that after 10 pulls, the artist and the printer agree to destroy the original plate—like breaking the mold in sculpture—so no more prints may be produced.

Ph.D. antiques appraiser and award-winning TV personality and talk show host Dr. Lori presents antique appraisal events nationwide. Join Dr. Lori on her next vacation cruise, focusing on antiques and watch her on the Fine Living Network’s “Worth Every Penny” and locally weekdays at 8 a.m. on Fox 4 TV’s ”Morning Blend.” Visit DrLoriV.com or call (888) 431-1010.

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