Collecting Fine Art Prints

Collecting art is a fun and incredibly rewarding life experience. Knowing what to invest in, however, can be a challenge. The limited edition fine art print is a great genre to focus on whether you are just starting to acquire art or if you are an experienced collector. Why – because limited edition prints are both appealing and good investments. In fact, collecting original fine art prints by famous artists has become increasingly popular now that people realize that they can actually afford it. While a Rembrandt painting can’t be had at any price, you don’t have to be multimillionaire to own an original Rembrandt etching. Original prints by famous artists such as Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, David Hockney or David Hammons can be surprisingly affordable as well.

A fine art print is a work of art made in multiple iterations, created through a transfer process. While technology is constantly evolving the processes, the most common, collected and valued techniques are: woodcut, etching, lithography and screenprint. Following are brief summaries for your reference:

The artist sketches an image on a block of wood that will be carved into using gouging tools. The dimensional results of the block are then coated with ink using a roller. A sheet of paper is placed on top of the block and then pressure is applied, leaving an impression of the block’s raised areas in reverse. Woodcut is the oldest printmaking process and continues to be a relevant art form today.

The artist uses an etching needle to scratch an image onto a metal plate covered with wax. The plate is then submerged in acid, which eats into the metal exposed by the scratched lines. The plate is then cleaned, inked, and cleaned again, leaving only the incised lines filled with ink. Damp paper and a cloth are placed over the plate, which is then moved through an etching press. Pressure forces the paper into the etched lines to pick up the ink. The image is printed in reverse, and an indentation, known as the ‘plate mark’, is left by the plate’s edges.  As long with engraving, this printmaking method is the most important technique for old master prints, and remains in wide use today.

The artist draws an image on stone using special grease-based lithographic crayons, or greasy ink known as tusche. Ink is then applied to the grease-treated image on the flat printing surface. The blank/non-image areas, which hold moisture, repel the lithographic ink. With fine art printmaking the inked surface is then printed directly on paper using a special press. Lithography opened up printmaking to artists who were reluctant to learn the technical skills needed to create woodcuts or etchings, since many of the same tools, such as brushes and pencils, can be used.

The artist cuts into a sheet of paper or plastic film to create a stencil. The stencil is then placed in a frame that has a layer of fine mesh stretched across it to form a ‘screen’. A sheet of paper or length of fabric is placed below the screen. A blade or squeegee is the moved across the screen to fill the open mesh apertures with ink, and a reverse stroke then causes the screen to touch the substrate momentarily along a line of contact. Only cutout portions of the stencil print. In addition to stencils, a photographic image can be reproduced on the screen using light-sensitive gelatins. This is a widely popular print making process today.

If you’re a collector of original fine art prints, or you’d like to be, here are a few things you should know and consider as you make any purchases – they may just help you avoid a costly mistake:

Be careful when buying a reproduction presented as an original
While this is an obvious point, how can you tell the difference between a knockoff reproduction and an original? An easy test is to examine the print under a magnifying glass or jeweler’s loupe. If the image breaks up into hundreds of tiny half-tone dots you’re looking at a photo-offset lithograph. A genuine stone lithograph will appear solid and substantial, even under magnification.

Check the print size against its documentation
The measurements of a known print are always documented in the catalogue raisonné of that particular artist’s graphic work. It’s a matter of record, and the size should not change from one impression to another. Compare the print you’d like to buy and if the size doesn’t measure up, don’t buy it!

Don’t presume it’s a first edition
While the piece you want to buy was printed from the artist’s original wood block, plate, stone or screen, and thus still be considered an original print, more than one edition may have been reproduced. Fine art prints, much like books, often go through several editions. First editions are almost always more valuable, so take time to do some detecting.

Check to see if it’s a lifetime impression
A lifetime impression is a print that was created during the artist’s lifetime. A lifetime impression is typically more valuable, especially in the case of Old Masters like Albrecht Durer, Jacques Callot and Rembrandt. However, don’t shy away from posthumous printings entirely—they too can be an excellent value

Never assume it was really signed by the artist
A print signed in pencil by the artist is worth more than the same composition unsigned. Sadly, too many unscrupulous people have taken their genuine prints and forged the artist’s signature. Be especially careful when buying “signed” pieces by A-list artists such as Picasso, Miro, Chagall, Dali, Matisse, Warhol, Lichtenstein, etc. Check the number as well. If a print is numbered 17/100 (the 17th impression from a total edition of 100) but the documented size of that edition was only 50, then something isn’t right! Always do research before you buy.

Don’t be fooled by a Certificate of Authenticity
Though many dealers today tend to issue their own Certificates of Authenticity, such certificates are easy to print up and don’t really guarantee anything. You really want any documentation from the actual publisher of the piece.