Making a Great Impression

Prints are becoming increasingly popular with collectors as they gain new respect from scholars.

David Wojnarowicz, Untitled, 1982, color stencil print with spray paint and collage, in the collection of the Whitney Museum.

David Wojnarowicz, Untitled, 1982, color stencil print with spray paint and collage, in the collection of the Whitney Museum.


When Christie’s New York sold the estate of writer Michael Crichton in May, Jasper Johns’s Flags I, a 1973 screenprint depicting two vertical U.S. flags, was chased by several bidders and knocked down for $842,500. The sum was double the estimate of $300,000 to $400,000, and a record for a Johns print. Several lots earlier, Johns’s painting of the same subject, Flag (1960–66), had already doubled its $10 million to $15 million estimate to sell for $28.6 million.

Experts say that printmaking has been essential to Johns, allowing him to experiment with composition and techniques. But Johns himself was initially hesitant. “He was skeptical about printmaking as a medium that could impart the same qualities as a painting. Brushstroke and manner were very important to him,” says Sophie Larrimore, associate specialist in the prints department at Christie’s. “Obviously printmaking can be a very flat medium, and what he really wanted to do was see how much he could layer and make it more tactile and beautiful. It was important for him to work through that subject in that medium.”

Specialists note that Crichton owned both the painting and the print for decades. “It reiterated the fact that the painting is one thing and the print is another,” says Larrimore. Both the artist and Crichton understood that these were “two very different sides of the same conversation.”

Buyers are becoming more aware that printmaking is integral to the development of many major artists and that prints are finished works of art in their own right. As attention to prints has increased in recent years, according to auction houses and dealers, sales have surged, without the extreme volatility that has characterized the broader art-market boom. Amid the fallout in speculative prices for paintings and sculpture, modern and contemporary prints have increasingly become an attractive entry point for new collectors, as well as an alternative for established collectors who were priced out of the paintings and sculpture market or who decided to pull back in the past two years.

Jim Kempner, owner of Jim Kempner Fine Art in New York, says that “people who would normally start collecting by looking at a painting were getting their feet wet with prints. They were able to discover how great prints are. Pricewise, you are able to get an original work by some of the best artists out there.”

Mary Bartow, Sotheby’s New York head of prints, points out that beginning collectors “can get great prints, really great images by Warhol or Picasso or Matisse, for $10,000 to $50,000.” She adds that among established buyers, “great collectors see the importance of putting prints in with their paintings, because it can show the artist using another sensibility.”

In the past year, several major museum and gallery shows have explored the prints of masters ranging from Matisse and Picasso to Warhol and Chuck Close. In mid-July, on the eve of the National Gallery of Art’s show of master prints by Edvard Munch (see review, page 113), Bonhams auction house in London offered a rare hand-colored impression of one of the earliest states of the artist’s famous Madonna (1895). Estimated at £500,000 to £700,000 ($790,000 to $1 million), the price soared to £1.25 million ($1.9 million). The price for a Munch print is second only to the $2.1 million auction record achieved in late 2007, at the height of the market boom, when Vampire II, a color lithograph, sold at Grev Wedels Plass in Oslo.

Munch produced the Madonna image in seven different states between 1895 and 1902, and the impression sold at Bonhams was from the first state. According to the auction catalogue, “Munch would often exhibit a number of coloured variants together, experimenting how different colours could express a range of emotions. He regarded each one as a unique work, comparable to his paintings.” But even the top prints typically bring only a fraction of the prices fetched by paintings: the record for a Munch painting is $38 million, paid for an oil-on-canvas Vampire (1894) at Sotheby’s in November 2008.

This past year, the board of the European Fine Art Foundation (TEFAF), which organizes the major annual art show in Maastricht, the Netherlands, added a special “Works on Paper” section to the fair, which included photographs, prints, and drawings. TEFAF board member and art collector Michel Witmer says that the new section was a way of attracting works on the “masterpiece level.” Of the 19 exhibitors from eight countries in the section, 18 were new to the fair.

Prints by Picasso, one of the most innovative and prolific printmakers in art history, were everywhere in New York earlier this year: at the Met, in an exhibition of the museum’s Picasso holdings; in the Museum of Modern Art’s “Picasso: Themes and Variations”; and in the Marlborough gallery’s New York and London show, “Celebrating the Muse: Women in Picasso’s Prints from 1905–1968.”

Kim Schmidt, director of graphics at Marlborough New York, says that the show was a revelation even to the gallery’s staff. “Everyone learned quite a bit about him as an artist and in particular about his printmaking,” she says.

Marilyn McCully, a London-based independent scholar and editor who wrote the essay for the Marlborough catalogue, says that “the public got involved with the show in a way—real interest, real looking—that is normally reserved for paintings shows.”

Noting the “tremendous popular response” to the numerous recent Picasso shows, John Szoke, owner of John Szoke Editions in New York, which specializes in Picasso works on paper, says his clients range from a collector who has “a private list of 15 to 20 prints which are the major best existing impressions—he doesn’t want to have 200 prints” to a collector who wants each of his 16 nieces and nephews to have “a comparable quality Picasso print without too much nudity.”

Among the artist’s most prized works, says Szoke, are the earlier prints. Picasso “basically worked in cycles,” Szoke explains. His earlier cycles include the “Vollard Suite,” named after his dealer Ambroise Vollard, in which he explored many classical subjects, such as the Minotaur, and another cycle known as the “Saltimbanques.” They are treasured more than the two later cycles. And within each cycle, certain subjects are preferred over others, Szoke says. In the later linocuts, for example, “the large, color, full female heads are more desirable than his bullfighting teams.”

Emmanuel Benador, director of graphics at Jan Krugier Gallery in New York, says that prices for Picasso prints can start as low as $2,000 and range up to $1.8 million to $2 million. There are “a lot in the 5, 10, 20, and 100 thousand dollar range,” he adds. “It depends on what period, how rare the work is, and the technique.” Condition is paramount, Benador says. He advises collectors to “always unframe a print before purchase.” Like many other experts, he says it is important to check the margins of the work since some works that sustain damage can be remargined. “See if there is light damage or acid damage and whether the colors are fresh. If you have any doubts, consult an expert.”

Condition is also a factor to consider in prints by Donald Judd, says Manhattan dealer Susan Sheehan. Judd often worked with “very beautiful, fine Japanese paper, the surfaces of which are really pristine. It has to be perfect.” Sheehan also notes that Judd always intended his sets of ’70s and ’80s prints, which are “very much related to his sculpture of that period,” to be kept together and displayed together. However, many of these sets were bought by dealers directly from publishers, broken up, and sold. As a result, Sheehan says, “it’s really difficult to find a complete set and harder still to find a set that’s intact.” Prices can range from $5,000 to $7,000 for a black-and-white etching from the ’70s to about $100,000 for a complete set of ten prints from the ’80s, and $30,000 to $50,000 for a “really rare” individual print.

New York-based dealer Pia Gallo also emphasizes the imortance of condition. “Buy things in the best possible condition you can afford,” she says. Collectors should be particularly attentive to condition when buying work by popular artists such as Picasso, Chagall, and Warhol. As a result of being more frequently displayed, such work “may have condition issues that derive from exposure to sunlight, such as burning or fading,” Gallo says.

Buyers may be intimidated by classifications based on technique and edition size, but experts say it isn’t that difficult to grasp the technical aspects and the terminology of printmaking or to learn the basic guidelines about what to look for in the image itself.

There are differences, experts say, between the realm of Old Master prints—where supply is short, prices are firmly established, and middle-level sales are sluggish—and the realm of modern and contemporary prints, where an artist’s prices tend to fluctuate in tandem with his or her broader market.

“There is a special problem with great printmakers of the past, such as Dürer, Rembrandt, Piranesi, and Goya,” says R. Stanley Johnson, president of R. S. Johnson Fine Art in Chicago, who specializes in paintings, drawings, and prints from the 15th to the mid-20th century. “About 90 percent of their prints are impressions printed after they died. Very few of their prints available today were made during their lifetimes. We can make a general statement that all of the lifetime impressions would be more beautiful than the posthumous prints.”

Johnson adds, “You can buy certain good things, such as prints by Dürer and Piranesi, for under $10,000. In modern prints, you can find excellent prints in that price range by Toulouse-Lautrec and Jacques Villon.”

Michele Senecal, executive director of the International Fine Print Dealers Association in New York, concedes that the technical aspect of prints “sometimes creates a little bit of a barrier.” Senecal points those seeking information to the IFPDA Web site (ifpda.org), which answers numerous questions and offers extensive information on the technical aspects of printmaking.

David Tunick, a New York dealer who specializes in prints and drawings from the 15th to the mid-20th century, says that “an awful lot of people have the impression that prints are multiples and copies of paintings. I always tell classes and beginning collectors that most great printmakers—like Goya, Dürer, Degas, and Picasso—were great painters. Printmaking was an alternate means of expression, like Shakespeare writing a sonnet or Mozart writing a symphony. There are different ways of saying important things.”

Larrimore says that a common misperception is that a print from an edition of 30 should cost “one-thirtieth the price of a painting.”

Kempner advises new collectors not to get “too hung up” on the size of the edition, particularly for prolific artists such as Warhol, where edition sizes tend to be larger but condition and authenticity may be more important issues to consider. “I see people buying Liz [Taylor] prints that are in terrible shape,” Kempner says. “Some of these offset lithographs were sold for $10 or given away, then treated shabbily or kept in the sun. Some prints from the ’60s have been put through the wringer.”

Kempner advises interested buyers to cross-check the ongoing Warhol catalogue raisonné. “You want to make sure there is a number from the Warhol Foundation stamped on the back” of a print. “It’s also fine to ask the dealer where it came from. Through the foundation? From another dealer?”

Cary Leibowitz, director of contemporary editions at Phillips de Pury & Company, says that collectors of Warhol prints don’t always pursue the same subjects as the collectors of paintings—and “it’s not just a financial division.” The “Electric Chair” paintings, for example, which have sold at auction for as high as $3.8 million, are sought after by “a small but sophisticated group of collectors.” Leibowitz notes that Warhol also produced a portfolio of “Electric Chair” prints, which typically sell for between $5,000 and $10,000 each, which he calls “Warhol-print bargains.”

Marilyn Monroe, however, has universal appeal. Among the most sought after of Warhol prints are those featuring her image. “Marilyn is still the top tier that people go after,” Leibowitz says. “There are probably ten different ones in the portfolio and colors vary. But condition is always a key factor.” He says that a complete set of Marilyn prints typically costs between $1.5 million and $2 million, while an individual Marilyn print can cost from $60,000 to $200,000.

Meanwhile the preference for color has also shifted, Leibowitz says. “Black and silver was always one of the top colors and still is. But now people also go for hot pinks and really strong colors.” They want prints where Marilyn looks “very Marilyn”—with blond, not green, hair.

On a broader level, experts describe the market for modern prints as active but selective. Noting several recent print auctions, New York-based collector Nelson Blitz Jr. says that “great things made great prices. That is the only judge of what is happening in the market. The great Munchs, Kirchners, and Picassos make record prices every year. The lower- to medium-quality works just stay the same forever” in terms of price.

In the contemporary realm, several curators and dealers say they encourage younger artists to embrace printmaking. Jacob Lewis, director of Pace Prints in New York, says that the gallery actively courts contemporary artists “to bring in the next generation of printmakers and artists.” In recent years, Pace Prints has invited Ghada Amer and Reza Farkhondeh, Will Cotton, Tara Donovan, Ryan McGinness, and Inka Essenhigh, among others, to participate in printmaking residencies. More-established artists who have worked with the gallery to produce editioned works include Donald Baechler, Chuck Close, Jim Dine, Helen Frankenthaler, and Kenneth Noland.

“What we’re finding with the younger generation is that they are taking the work back to the studio and letting it inform their other work,” says Lewis, who notes that several canvases in Amer’s recent show at Cheim & Read in New York grew out of her printmaking exerience. “Artists come to realize that printmaking is not just reproduction. The amount of thinking and planning the artist has to do is equal to the energy it takes to make a painting,” Lewis says. Further, these “unique works can be offered to people of my generation who perhaps can’t afford to buy a painting.”

Of the works on paper Amer created with Farkhondeh at Pace, half of those sold “went to her painting collectors,” Lewis says. He notes that there was an increase of interest in editioned works overall after the art market took a sharp downturn in late 2008. “People are nervous,” he says, so they prefer to spend $25,000 to $50,000 for an editioned work than $250,000 for a painting. “Collectors were still able to feed their need,” says Lewis.

David Kiehl, print curator at the Whitney Museum, adopted a similar policy in building the museum’s substantial print collection after he arrived, in the early ’90s. He notes that prints were among the first artworks acquired by museum founder Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney. “She encouraged printmaking by the artists that were of interest to her. She told artists it was important to not limit themselves to painting and sculpture. Besides, people couldn’t always afford paintings and sculpture,” says Kiehl.

Kiehl set about buying prints in depth for the artists he was interested in, including Donald Judd, Kiki Smith, Richard Tuttle, David Wojnarowicz, and Adam Helms. “Maybe you can’t have 25 paintings” by a major artist, says Kiehl. “But you can have 25 prints to explain what an artist is doing.”

Eileen Kinsella is editor of the ARTnewsletter.

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