What exactly are prints? The truth of the matter is that they are original artworks in their own right.
by Jeffrey Grunthaner
What exactly are prints? An all-too-common misconception novice collectors tend to have is that all prints are reproductions — like posters hanging on a dorm room wall, mechanically reproduced and sold en masse. Yet the truth of the matter is that prints, even on those rare occasions when they do take the form of a poster, are original artworks in their own right. They bear the trace of the artist’s hand, as well as the marks of the printer he or she has chosen to work with. The prints made by our favorite artists are just as original as their sculptures, paintings, or photographs — there’s just more of them.
First and foremost, printmaking is an art. For this reason, original prints have been known to sell for over a million USD at auctions. Just recently, in fact, an etching by Pablo Picasso, La Minotauromachie, sold for a record-breaking $1.98 million. Of course, not all types of prints reach into the economic stratosphere in this way. As we will see, collecting prints can be a pragmatically inexpensive way to develop a respectable art collection. What’s essential is to know what to look for.
As every savvy collector should know, there are different kinds of prints available on today’s market. These include, but are not limited to, lithographs, etchings, woodcuts, silkscreens, linocuts, drypoints, aquatints, mezzotints, and giclée prints. Among this variety, let’s touch on the ones that have had the most art historical significance: etchings, screenprints, lithographs, and giclées.
In Rembrandt’s time as now, the technique underlying the making of an etching involves covering a metal plate with wax, and then scratching an image onto the plate with a
specially designed needle. Next, the artist immerses the plate in an acid that eats into the parts of the metal cut out by the needle. While submerged in the acid, the plate is generally “feathered,” or brushed by a feather-like tool so that bubbles don’t interfere with the corrosive effect of the acid. When the plate is removed from the acid, the wax is wiped off and ink is pushed into the grooves where the acid has eaten into the grooves made by the needle. All the excess ink is cleared away, except for what fills the grooves. Finally, a dampened paper is placed over the plate, and a protective cloth is placed over both. It’s in this configuration that the etching press is made to run over the plate, staining the dampened paper with the image cut into the plate.
There are a couple things the burgeoning collector should know when assessing whether a print is worth its asking price.
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Today, the sheer number of art fairs devoted exclusively to prints is a testament to their increasing popularity. Founded in 1990, the London Original Print Fair at the Royal Academy is the oldest art fair that deals in prints and multiples. In New York, the International Fine Print Dealers Association (IFPDA) annually hosts the Fine Art Print Fair, which is now in its 26th year, and where you can find a wide range of prints, from works made by old masters to modern editions made by contemporary publishers. By contrast, websites like ARTmine are great resources for purchasing limited edition prints online.
Whether buying prints online or at a fair, one should always note how many editions of a print series there is. A print from an edition of 100 is more valuable than a print from an edition of 1,000. Similarly, a monoprint, of which there is only one, will probably be worth even more. Make sure the price seems adequate to the rarity of the print. An artist will have decided well in advance how many prints he or she will make. Once an edition is completed, it can’t be added to, even if the prints happen to sell very well. Apart from the prints for sale, there are also artist copies or proofs, which are generally not available to the public. Contrary to popular belief, however, there is no difference in quality between the numbered prints (print #1, #2, #3, etc.), and the artist’s proof.
Take care that your print is original. The most definitive method of determining whether a print is an original or a reproduction is by examining it in relation to what you know of its production process. If the print is supposed to be a lithograph, for example, there shouldn’t be a platemark. If there is the trace of a platemark, then what you have is most likely a reproduction. To reiterate, prints are made by an original process; a reproduction, however, is only photomechanically produced. The difference between an authentic print (a numbered member of a series) and a reproduction can generally be spotted by an expert and may even appear quite obvious the more one understands the technique behind how a print is made.
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Jeffrey Grunthaner is a writer based in New York. You can find his work in BOMB, artnet News, The Clauduis App, Archinect, Imperial Matters, Folder, or Hyperallergic. He curates a reading series on contemporary poetics at Hauser & Wirth, West 22nd Street.