The print-making process was designed for one reason: to sell reproductions of an artists’ work as far as the market would bear.
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The revolutionary printing technology was first launched using simple woodcuts and has now progressed to computer-assisted digital printing. Print-making has allowed the average person to enjoy expensive works of art that would otherwise be a distant memory.
Vintage prints and frequently copied works are so common now that they are one of the items PBS’s “Antiques Roadshow” encourages you to leave at home. The truth is most frequently copied prints have only decorative value at best. This doesn’t mean all prints are valueless – it just means values in this category are influenced by many factors including rarity, condition, artist, exposure, and more.
Here’s a short list of the most commonly used reproduction methods to help you determine how your vintage print was made.
Digital Pigment Print
The most modern method recognized as a print-making technique is when the artist uses a computer and ink-jet printer to create a digital print. This work requires high-quality printers, and most artists use this method to produce a single unique artwork or limited edition prints. Artist Robert Longo uses this process for Thunder Road, 2010, which sold for $12,500 in 2016.
Screenprint (or Screen Print)
Favored by many mid-century modern and contemporary artists, the screenprint is commonplace today. It was a medium of choice by Andy Warhol, Ed Ruscha, and Roy Lichtenstein. During the screen printing process, ink is wiped across a screen with a squeegee. The ink passes through the screen exactly in the same location as the artist’s image, transferring the printed image onto a selected medium. Also known as silkscreen, serigraphy, and serigraph printing, the process accommodates many different mediums, such as paper, fabric, glass, or canvas. The Warhol screenprint $ (Quadrant), 1982, sold for $185,000, demonstrates the value a screenprint can hold.
The monotype method is used to produce a single, unique print from a clean and unetched plate. Artists Frank Stella and Sam Francis (whose Untitled, 1986 sold for $25,000) often used this method to produce colorful abstract art on handmade paper. The image is produced in reverse and then applied to paper using dry pigments, inks, and oils. The monotype is sometimes confused with a monoprint, however, a monoprint always contains a pattern or part of an image that is constantly repeated in each print.
One of the oldest methods of reproducing original art, engraved prints are commonly found at auctions for as little as $10 to $100. The affordable prices likely represent the number of images produced rather than the artist’s painstaking creative process. Engraving was the method of choice to create mass-market images until the 19th century when etching was adopted. To complete an engraving, the artist must incise (scratch) an image directly onto a metal plate using a tool called a burin. The plate is then inked and printed. A single engraving can produce thousands of prints.
For instance, Secretary of State John Quincy Adams commissioned engraver William J. Stone of Washington to produce an exact copy of the original Declaration of Independence onto a copperplate, a process that took him three years to complete – and is valued at roughly $600,000. Adams asked Stone to engrave the handwritten version. It is a common but erroneous assumption that the familiar handwritten version reproduced by Stone (with its numerous signatures below) was the original drafted version of the document. However, the first version was printed. Stone’s version was not engrossed until July 19 and not signed until early August 1776, but it is his artistic engraving hand that we all now associate with the original version.
Etching replaced engraving in the Middle Ages by allowing an artist to draw a composition on a wax-coated metal plate. The plate is soaked in acid, which corrodes the exposed lines and leaves the wax intact. Prints can be produced by inking the wax layer. Rembrandt van Rijn preferred this method throughout the 17th century, which is astonishing considering you can easily purchase a period print from his original etching for around $1,500. Period examples from 1626 can sell for as much as $11,875, such as The Circumcision, which sold at Heritage in 2014.
You might remember this process from middle school. Using a piece of linoleum, an artist carves out an image that is then inked and pressed against paper. The soft linoleum allows the artist to introduce more nuances to a work by better controlling the depth and angle at which the image is carved. This allows the introduction of more fluid lines. Picasso enjoyed this medium and employed it for Déjeuner sur l’herbe, 1962, which sold for $134,500.
Recognized as the oldest printmaking technique, woodcut allows the artist to literally carve an image into a block of wood. The wood is inked and prints are produced, leaving the removed wood in negative. Sometimes the original wood grain is still apparent in a print, which may or may not have been the artist’s original intent. Look to artists such as Jim Dine (b. 1935) and M. C. Escher (1898-1972) for quality examples. Escher created his famous mathematically inspired visual illusions and printed them on Japan paper in the 1930s, but few people realize how prolific he was during his most active years. When Escher died in 1972, he left behind a legacy of 448 lithographs and more than 2,000 drawings and sketches.
As a general rule, posters that date to or were printed before World War II almost always have some value as the lithograph process produced vivid colors and images. Condition, of course, matters greatly, but that can be overlooked based on historical value, census (how many exist), and eye appeal. This is especially true of tourism and transportation posters and prints produced by economic and tourism agencies. Strangely, an original poster’s value can actually increase if it has been reproduced so many times it has become instantly recognizable like The Bell Boy (Paramount, 1918).
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Written by: Eric Bradley