Once dismissed by serious art collectors, prints have finally found a home in the collections of some of the art world's most respected players
“Prints have a special allure,” says New York dealer Mary Ryan. “For some artists, a print is equally important and valuable as work in any other medium.” Good thing seeing as how Ryan, along with 84 galleries and publishers, will participate in the International Fine Print Dealer Association Fair on view at the Park Avenue Armory from November 1st through November 4th. Now in its 25th year, the association represents a wealth of knowledge and material, making the fair a premier opportunity to get familiar with print collecting.
“At its best, a print is as much a technological innovation as an artistic creation.” — Boca Raton Museum curator Kathleen Goncharov
"This is the only fair really where you get to see and meet an international group of dealers who are vetted and have the best expertise in the field," says Tara Reddi, print expert at Marlborough Gallery and president of the IFPDA. "It also allows a new collector to take time and see what they like. Plus prints are accessible in many different ways due to the multiplicity of an image."
The term “prints” covers a wide range of techniques including monotypes, silkscreens, etchings and lithography and cover art movements from the Renaissance to Post-Modernism. But the term can be misleading since it is now often used for inexpensive reproductions produced digitally with little or no involvement from the artist. Fine art prints, in contrast, are produced in numbered and signed limited-editions for which the artist was integrally involved, either by making the plate himself or more often, by collaborating with a master printer.
“At its best, a print is as much a technological innovation as an artistic creation,” says Boca Raton Museum curator Kathleen Goncharov who directed the Brodsky Center for Innovative Editions at Rutgers University from 2007 to 2010. According to Goncharov, prints can offer the collector the experience of appreciating of superb techniques used in remarkably original combinations by artists, some of whom are masters and some of whom have never worked in the medium before. “They don't necessarily pull their own sheet. But they work with our master-printer Randy Hemminghaus to figure out how to get what they want.”
At the top of the print market, work can go for hundreds of thousands of dollars, especially when produced by an internationally known contemporary artist, like William Kentridge. For Miro or Picasso, Warhol or Lichtenstein, prices for a single picture easily exceed $150,000. In fact, the world record for a print set by Christie's in November 2011 is $5,122,500 for Pablo Picassos's “La femme qui pleure, I”, a 1937 work combining drypoint, aquatint and etching. Not certain it can match that price again, Christies' offered a pristine Picasso, “Buste de Femme au Chapeau”, a portrait of his second wife, Jacqueline, at its sale of Prints and Multiples on October 31st. Its estimate may seem something of a bargain at only $400,000 to $500,000, but the piece did not sell.
According to Christie's print specialist Adam McCoy, the chief factor to look for when buying a print is "Condition, condition, condition." Fingerprints, water marks, yellowing, even trimming can devalue a print considerably. He points to Roy Lichtenstein's classic Pop art screen print, Sweet Dreams, Baby!, as an example of exceptional condition. "What you are looking for is a good strong yellow, not a mustardy color," he explains. "When you have that color, straight from the box, that's when it really brings the print collectors, plus you get the collectors who normally buy paintings and sculptures who are looking for the best impressions."
"One of the things... about printmaking is you can get really fantastic images... for a few thousand dollars.” — Jane Kallir, Galerie St. Etienne.
But for most collectors, prints are not just museum-quality, top priced splurges, but low cost ways of entering the art market. Steve Shane, an anesthesiologist and top contemporary art collector, got his feet wet when he was still in college. He encouraged his parents to buy prints by Miro, Calder, Chagall and Lichtenstein back in the 1970s and is now the owner of over 100 prints, in his collection of over 1,200 works. “One thing I can say about myself is I am not a print snob,” says Shane. “I don't care how many are in the edition. When it's in my home, there's only one.” Given that he bought his Lichtenstein for less than $300 while he was still in college back home in Michigan, he has seen his purchases increase in value. But that is not a concern of his since he never sells, but donates works to museums. “Basically, when I buy prints, it's because I missed the boat,” says Shane. For example, when he saw contemporary artist John Currin's first show at Andrea Rosen Gallery, he wasn't taken with the work. By the time he “got it”, Currin was already out of his price range. So instead, he went after every Currin print he could find. He now owns more than a dozen.
“I would stress for the beginning collectors, the print market has bifurcated over the last ten years,” says Jane Kallir, veteran dealer at Galerie St. Etienne in Manhattan's Midtown West neighborhood. “You do have very rare or iconic images that can command $50,000, $100,000, $150,000 dollars and up. But one of the things that is really unique about printmaking is you can get really fantastic images that are perhaps less well known or a little bit more challenging by the same artists for a few thousand dollars.” Kallir knows this all too well. She will be bringing a classic Max Bechmann self-portrait to the fair, asking a steep price of more than $150,000. But she also has lesser known, maybe more interesting examples by the artist, that are in the $10,000 range. For other affordable works you can go by Mary Ryan's booth, where she has a range of work — from Richard Diebenkorn's Ocean Park series prints for $185,000, to a new edition by Deborah Kass for $2,000, a steal given that the artist is about to have a retrospective at the Warhol Museum in Pittsburg.
"What I would say, is look around, go where your eyes lead you, figure out what you like, think about what your budget is and jump in a buy something." says Ryan. "Many people who are collecting recommend that you look, look, look, look, develop a library, read all about it. I think it's also fun to go after something that appeals to you and make a commitment. There's nothing like owning a work of art that gets you excited about doing the research and its not a bad way to start."