You might wonder why some prints will sell for thousands while others only sell for a few hundred dollars. What makes some prints so much more expensive?
Limited Edition Art Prints
Artists in the early 20th century produced fine art prints in limited editions so that each individual work would maintain its value over time. In comparison to open edition prints, limited edition prints are numbered and have a limit on the quantity.
The artist will typically sign and number the work. The numbering is the edition number, which represents the number of the print in the production run. For example, if the edition number is ‘3/100,’ then that individual print was the third print made in a production of 100 prints.
One of the most important factors in valuing the work is identifying and confirming the artist of the work. A print made by Pablo Picasso may have a higher demand, and therefore more value, than a print of equal quality made by a lesser-known artist.
For many well-known artists, a catalog raisonne provides the details about each print ever produced by the artist. Catalog raisonnes are excellent resources for comparing and authenticating prints. Some of the details include paper dimensions, paper type, signatures and stamps used, special editions created, and color-corrected images of the individual works to compare to your own.
If the artist cannot be identified, you should consult with an expert.
Some limited edition prints are more valuable when they are hand-signed by the artist, but not all valuable prints are signed.
When you are researching the print, you will want to pay attention to details, such as if other prints in the edition are in fact signed and where the signature is located. For instance, many artists will only sign at the lower right margin or on the back of the works. It is common for art forgers to add signatures to unsigned prints to make them seem more valuable. Always consult the catalog raisonne when researching signatures.
You will also want to know the difference between a hand-signed print versus a plate-signed print. For instance, many artists will scratch their name or initials onto the plate so that it is part of the printed image. These are called ‘plate signed’ prints. Sometimes you will need a magnifying glass to identify whether the signatures are hand-signed or printed. Most artists sign the prints in the margin in pen or pencil.
The Age of the Print
The printing date could also be crucial to determining the value of the work.
Do not assume that your print is worth more simply because it looks old. Do not be fooled by mass-produced reproductions of older works. Fine art printmaking is a deliberate creative process performed by the artist or under the artist’s instruction, whereas a reproduction is a recent copy of an older work printed with or without the artist’s permission.
The more labor-intensive the printing process, the more valuable the resulting print might be. For instance, it often takes much longer to produce prints with multiple colors so multi-color works tend to garner higher auction values than black and white works. Large prints tend to be more expensive because they are difficult to create and often require a large printing press with the assistance of a master printmaker.
The type of print does not necessarily determine the value, but it is helpful to understand the most common types of prints and how they influence the appearance of the work.
The first two printing types listed are what is called Intaglio. This means that the ink is held in grooves below the surface of the plate, and then pressed into the paper. The other two types of printing are relief, such as a woodcut where the ink is transferred under pressure, and planographic, like lithography, where the use of chemicals allows certain areas to be absorbent and resistant to the ink.
The process of etching involves drawing onto a wax-coated metal plate, then soaking the entire plate in acid. The acid corrodes the exposed lines and leaves the wax intact, so that when the plate is inked and pressed, the paper absorbs the image in reverse. Traditionally, etchings were only produced using steel and copper plates, but today zinc is also used and is the softest of the three metals.
Etching is also an older type of printmaking and seen in many antique prints. The earliest examples of etchings are from the Middle Ages on suits of armour, where the armourers realized they could etch designs directly onto the metal. The earliest etchings on paper are believed to have been invented in Germany by Daniel Hopfer (circa 1470–1536), and the earliest signed and dated etching known was created by Urs Graf in 1513. The method of etching became most popular in the 17th and 18th centuries when artists such as Rembrandt and Piranesi expanded the art form to great expertise. Etching remains popular and widely practiced today.
Other forms of etching include aquatint and drypoint.
Engraving involves the artist incising an image directly onto a metal plate with a cutting tool called a burin, and the image is then inked and printed. It should be noted that these print are identified by the sharply pointed “V-Shape”. It is because engraving is so strenuous.
The Greeks, Romans, and Etruscans were the first to use engraving techniques for decorating objects, but the method was not used for printmaking until probably the 1430’s. The Golden Age of engraving occurred between 1470-1530, when artists such as Albrecht Dürer and Martin Schongauer transformed the technique into an art form rather than simply a means for mass production. By the 19th century, the art of engraving was mostly for commercial illustration, but today engraving is utilized by many contemporary artists, often blending the process with etching.
Lithography involves drawing directly onto a lithography stone with an oil-based implement, then coating it with a water-based liquid. When oil-based ink is applied it’s repelled by the water, inking in just the image and allowing it to be transferred onto a paper ground.
Lithography has retained its popularity ever since it was introduced. The lithograph (named from the Latin for stone, litho, and mark, graph) was invented by Bavarian playwright Aloys Senefelder in 1798 in Germany, who accidentally discovered that his scripts could be copied by writing them in greasy crayon on slabs of limestone and then printing them with rolled-on ink. Since the limestone could easily retain any crayon marks applied after repeated uses, unlimited quantities of lithographs could be printed. The ease of production and economical distribution of lithography found its place throughout both art and commerce, not only being used by artists to duplicate their drawings but also revolutionized advertising in the 1820’s.
Screen printing starts with an ink-blocking stencil applied to a screen. When ink is wiped across the screen, it selectively passes through, transferring the image to the ground. Screen printing is one of the most popular methods because of it’s cost effectiveness and its accessibility of materials.
Condition can be one of the most important factors when establishing value and often the smallest details can make all the difference in terms of price. A collector might expect an antique print to contain some discoloration, but even the slightest crease or tiny indentation can lower the value of a recent work.
In some cases, condition issues are subjective. Some collectors may appreciate an older print that has condition issues to show the life or age of the work, while others may want a print that is in pristine condition.
The two main things you can do to protect your print include keeping it away from direct sunlight, and storing it in a well-ventilated space and away from any moisture (or moisture-ridden spaces like a basement).
Some condition issues are fairly common and can be easily repaired, while others are more permanent. Common condition issues to look for include the following:
- Foxing: reddish brown spots that emerge when the paper is aging or exposed to moisture
- Creasing: grooves in the surface, typically from poor handling or improper storage.
- Buckling or warping: uneven paper surface, usually caused by humidity.
- Tears, rips & holes: paper losses from improper care or holes caused by bugs.
- Discoloration: typically caused by acidity, which is not easily preventable, and is commonly seen in paper manufactured during 1850 to 1950, and oxidation, which is a yellowing effect initiated by light and caused by the chemicals inherent in the paper.
- Mat burn: discoloration caused by acid in non-archival mounts, and often seen on the reverse of the sheet from contact with backing boards.
These following issues are more permanent and can’t be fixed:
- Trimming: any trimming of the edges will automatically decrease the value and cannot be redone.
- Fading: Fading is an irreversible process that changes the nature of the colors and the resins that hold the pigments together
After understanding what drives the value of a print, researching past auction prices for similar pieces can help you to find a ballpark value for your print. The Heritage Auctions Prints and Multiples archives provides a valuable resource for what a print might sell for.
If you can’t find the print in question, or a similar print, consulting an expert for appraisal will give you the most accurate value for your piece.
For more information and additional resources, please visit the Smithsonian American Art Museum.