Deciphering the language of art prints

art prints

A complete portfolio of Warhol’s ten screenprints in 1975 of Rolling Stones frontman Mick Jagger, has each print signed by the artist in pencil and in pen by Jagger. They sold in June 2020 for $700,000 + the buyer’s premium at Clars Auction Gallery. Photo courtesy of Clars Auction Gallery and LiveAuctioneers

NEW YORK – The language of art prints may seem a bit daunting to those new to collecting this field with terms like intaglio, giclee, woodcuts, monotypes, linocuts, etchings and lithographs. A print is a general label that can be used to describe many different processes and techniques. While some prints can be quite valuable, fetching six-figure sums, prints are generally more affordable than paintings and offer a good entry point into the fine art market. Their beauty also proves addictive to art collectors, both new and seasoned, making the prints market quite competitive today.

Holly Sherratt, director of Modern & Contemporary Art at Heritage Auctions, said there are four main types of prints distinguished by materials and process with no one technique being inherently more valuable than another. Relief prints, such as linocuts, are made by carving into a surface such as wood or linoleum and then printing the raised surfaces. Intaglio prints are made by carving lines into a (usually) metal plate and then printing those carved out areas. Lithographs are made by fixing a drawing on a stone or plate using an acid-based solution. Screenprints are made by pressing ink through a screen over some type of stencil.

art prints

Ten screenprints in colors of Andy Warhol’s ‘Endangered Species,’ 1983, no. 103 of an edition of 150 plus 30 artist’s proofs, are each signed and numbered in pencil with the publisher’s stamp on the reverse. This set earned $600,000 + the buyer’s premium in October 2015 at Heritage Auctions. Photo courtesy of Heritage Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

“As artists experiment and combine techniques, the methods become more complex,” she said. “I highly recommend taking a private tour of a printmaking workshop and watching these techniques in action. Once you see the work come to life, you’ll catch the print-collecting bug like I did.”

When paintings are out of reach of one’s budget, many collectors turn to prints. “Because prints are made in multiple editions, collectors can own a recognizable work by a famous artist for the fraction of the cost of a unique painting or drawing,” Sherratt said. “For a small investment, a collector can own an affordable work of art by a well-known artist such as Calder, Miro or even Picasso. Prints have become widely available and accessible at all price points from $100 to well over $100,000 depending on the artist and image.”

Four John Baldessari (b. 1931-) prints from the '2623 Third Street, Santa Monica' series. Signed; ed. 53/61; 2000. Sold for $5,850 + buyer's premium at Palm Beach Modern Auctions, Feb. 23, 2019.

Four John Baldessari (b. 1931-) prints from the ‘2623 Third Street, Santa Monica’ series. Signed; ed. 53/61; 2000. Sold for $5,850 + buyer’s premium at Palm Beach Modern Auctions, Feb. 23, 2019.

Pop art artworks by Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns and Roy Lichtenstein generally make the top-selling list and the print market is thriving. “We’ve had so much demand that we’ve increased our print sales from twice a year to once a month and have even had some weekly sales,” she said. “Prints used to be the entry point to collecting but now seasoned collectors also compete for prints and prices have been rising.”

art prints

A relief print of Roy Lichtenstein’s ‘Nude with Blue Hair,’ from ‘Nudes,’ 1994, on Rives BFK paper sold at Heritage Auctions in April 2018 for $540,500 with the buyer’s premium. Photo courtesy of Heritage Auctions

Prints are an easy medium to collect online since the images are familiar, they are easy to represent as digital images, and are generally easier to ship than other artworks. Because prints are multiples, they are also memorable. “A collector might see a print in person at a museum, art fair, or gallery and then buy the same image online a year or two later,” Sherratt said. “If you buy a print at auction, you can also take advantage of the resale market down the road so the reward to risk ratio is high.”

art prints

Joan Miro (Spanish, 1893-1983). ‘L’Arc,’ 1964. Lithograph in colors. From ‘Derriere Le Miroir’ No. 148. Published by Maeght, Paris. Sold by Quinn’s Auction Galleries on Dec. 3, 2020 for $200 + buyer’s premium.

New collectors should pay heed to edition numbers. The edition is the total number of prints for a given image. There might be one print in the edition or several hundred. The printer generally numbers the work as a fraction in the lower margin, for instance, 1/50, 2/50, and so on. “While the individual prints in a sequence are generally priced the same, the number of prints in the overall edition could make a big difference in terms of value,” she said. “A Picasso print from an edition of 40 will almost certainly be more valuable than a Picasso print from an edition of 500.”

art prints

An original Pablo Picasso copper plate and artist proof etching from the ‘Carmen’ suite, ‘Picador and Bull,’ realized $80,000 + the buyer’s premium in July 2017 at GWS Auctions Inc. Photo courtesy of GWS Auctions Inc. and LiveAuctioneers

One also needs to beware of reproductions and know the difference between a fine art print, poster, or giclée (inkjet print). “A poster is a photomechanical reproduction of a painting or drawing and is usually printed in a very large edition on a commercial printing press,” Sherratt said. “A giclée is also a photomechanical reproduction printed on paper or canvas using an inkjet print. Both types of prints are generally lower in value than a fine art print because these are copies of other works of art.”

By contrast, an original print is made directly on a copper plate, lithographic stone, woodblock or silkscreen. An original print is not a copy of another work. An artist creates the artwork directly on the printing matrix and then prints a small edition of the images.

The type of signature used also affects a print’s value. “Look at the signature closely. For contemporary works, the most valuable prints are generally signed and numbered in pencil in the lower margin. Many reproductions have printed signatures and have not been touched by the artist,” she said.

art prints

This 2005 unusual woodcut, collagraph and etching on handmade shaped paper, signed and dated, was printed from four woodblocks and two copper plates by Benedicto Cabrera (b. 1942). It made $500,000 + the buyer’s premium in June 2019 at Leon Gallery. Photo courtesy of Leon Gallery and LiveAuctioneers

After buying, make sure to properly frame your artwork using acid-free materials and keep them out of direct light. “Too much exposure to light can fade the colors and stain the paper. Sun and moisture are the enemies of any work on paper,” Sherratt said. “Finally, buy what you love and spend what you can afford. Even if you are new to print collecting and haven’t fully grasped the language of the trade, you can still appreciate the artwork.”

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