Joan Miró, Pablo Picasso, Francisco de Goya, Ellsworth Kelly, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Alex Katz and more.
ASE guest writer, Lauren Sanford, is the Prints and Multiples Director at Leland Little Auctions, a full-service auction gallery in Hillsborough, North Carolina. She shares her perspective and enthusiasm for art prints.
If I had a dollar for every time someone said to me “Oh, it’s just a print; it’s not an original work of art,” I could buy that Picasso lithograph I’ve had my eye on (which ironically, is a type of print!).
I am the Prints and Multiples Director at Leland Little Auctions, a full-service auction gallery in Hillsborough, North Carolina, and I adore my job. We handle everything from seventeenth-century etchings by Rembrandt van Rijn, to Pop Art screen prints by Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, to contemporary graphic works by Anish Kapoor, Wayne Thiebaud, Betye Saar, and Alex Katz. A range of prints comes through the door of the auction house each day, and many are rare and valuable gems. Just as many may turn out to be reproductions whose worth lies primarily in their decorative value. These may brighten up a bare wall, but they are less coveted from the standpoint of a collector.
Prints have long been a misunderstood art form. There seems to be a general haziness surrounding the word “print,” in terms of what it actually means, its relationship to paintings and drawings, and if it is considered an original work of art at all. One of the biggest challenges in discussing prints is getting past the misconception that they are copies of original works. This can be the case, but certainly not always. Ultimately, fine art prints – which are the good ones – are a terrific way to begin an art collection. You can find original prints by the big-name artists you know and love, and they are often priced more reasonably than same artist’s paintings or drawings.
Prints make up a large proportion of the framed art that you see, and it is important to get to the bottom of what a print is exactly. A print is a work of art that can be multiplied. It is usually on paper and presented in a frame, but it can also be a three-dimensional object that has been multiplied, and this is called a multiple. While fine art prints are considered original works of art, they are not unique because there is usually more than one in an edition. Paintings and drawings, however, are unique works – they exist singly.
Think of prints as falling into two major categories: reproduction prints and fine art prints. Reproductions are mechanical, mass-produced works that are not made by hand, such as offset lithographs and giclée prints. These are typically copies of paintings or drawings, and the artist is less involved in the process (if at all). An example would be a poster of your favorite Van Gogh painting from a museum gift shop. Fine art prints are “hand-pulled,” meaning the artist works directly on a printing medium and in close collaboration with the print studio to complete an edition. These are therefore original; they are not copies of something else, but works of art in their own right. Etchings, engravings, woodblocks, lithographs, and screen prints all fall under the umbrella of prints.
Most serious art buyers steer clear of reproductions. Original prints are where new collectors can be privy to beautiful works by artists they may not have access to otherwise. I find that few people are aware of the opportunity in this art-buying nuance, and it is one reason I so enjoy working in the field. Prints connect a broader audience to the artists they know and love.
Marc Chagall (French/Russian, 1887-1985), Engagement at the Circus, lithograph in colors, 1983, pencil signed and numbered 42/50. Sold for $3,800 in the Fall Quarterly Auction, September 16, 2017.
For example, say you are a fan the artist Marc Chagall and you’d like to acquire one of his works for your home at auction. Prices for an oil-on-canvas painting usually run in the million-dollar range, while drawings can be in the six-digit range. Hand-signed and numbered fine art prints by Chagall – which often have the look of a drawing or watercolor – often sell under $10,000, making them a more feasible option for art buyers. The same goes for a number of household names including Joan Miró, Pablo Picasso, Francisco de Goya, Jacob Lawrence, and Yayoi Kusama, all of whom were or are prolific printmakers (though prices of course vary).
Ellsworth Kelly (American, 1923-2015), Red, Yellow, and Blue, lithograph in colors, from Derrière le Miroir. Sold for $310 in the Spring Modern Fine Art Auction, March 8, 2017.
Taking this a step further, keep an eye out for fine art prints that are unsigned and from large editions. The lithograph shown here titled Red, Yellow, and Blue by Ellsworth Kelly was printed in a 1964 edition of Derrière le Miroir, a French art magazine that ran through the early 1980s. Twentieth-century periodicals such as Derrière le Miroir often published these prints, and much of the artwork has since been separated and framed. This type of print is original, but because it is part of a very large edition and lacks a pencil signature, it is less rare and more affordable. Though I don’t suggest pulling an artwork from its original context, many are no longer in situ and are readily available on the art market priced in the hundreds range. These types of prints from vintage art periodicals provide a wonderful introduction to the art market.
I hope this post has piqued your curiosity about prints and art collecting. I encourage you to explore the art market through auctions, galleries, and other resources. If you would like to continue the conversation, you can find me at my desk every day of the week at Leland Little Auctions. Happy art hunting!