Understanding Original Artists' Prints
"What you have here is not an original drawing, it is a print," the appraiser said, looking at the framed picture brought before him. "So it's not an original," the gentleman caller said, not able to hide his disappointment. "No, that's not really the case," the appraiser replied. "Your picture is not a fake, it is an original. It's an authentic original print. It's called an etching." The gentleman's appearance took on a puzzled look as he continued his inquiry with the art expert. "But isn't a print basically an image produced in such a way that it can be reproduced in multiple quantities?" the gentleman said. "Yes," the antique dealer replied, "but just because something was produced over and over again doesn't necessarily mean it's a reproduction." "So what you are saying is that I have an original reproduction?" the gentleman said. "Exactly!" the appraiser replied. The perplexed visitor showed another picture to the appraiser hoping to learn something he could understand this time around. The dealer pulled out a jeweler's loop and inspected the 2nd framed work through the glass. "What you have here, sir, I'm afraid, is not an original antique, it is just a printed reproduction." "But you said a print can still be an original," the gentleman pleaded. "True enough," the appraiser said, "but this is just a print of a print, and not an original print!" "HUH?" the gentleman replied.
In the world of antique and collectible art, one of the most difficult subjects to familiarize oneself with, forget about master, is the area of original artists' "prints." Certain kinds of prints can be safely categorized as original works of art, and not reproductions, because the printmakers' medium, be its printing stone, woodblock, metallic plate or some other technique of reproducing an artistic impression creates a unique artistic experience that cannot be produced in any other way. Before photographic or photomechanical reproduction was introduced in the late 19th century, an artist who wanted to recreate an image over and over again did so by engraving that artwork onto a block or stone or metal plate that was then tinted positively and negatively in mechanical or chemical relief and then impressed onto paper.
Artists still employ such methods. Such impressed images are generally referred to as "engravings" (mechanical process) or "etchings" (a chemical intaglio engraving process introduced around 1513). One of the greatest masters of the printed art, Albrecht Durer, probably invented craft around 1500 when he feared that one of his masterworks might one day be destroyed in a calamity. Durer stated in a letter written to a friend, "a thing on which I have spent more than a year's work, were ruined, it would be grief to me." So he began carving his highly detailed pictures onto printable wood blocks and discovered the benefit that such a medium had over "a painting that could be sold only once."
A lithograph is a grease-based print applied with a stone. Fairly modern screen and silkscreen prints are performed with gauze material. Artists from Rembrandt to Manet to Picasso to Andy Warhol have employed scores of different types of "original art" printing techniques over the years. Grasping the entire field can take more than a lifetime. However, the opportunities of making an occasional find and affording quality art make it an exciting arena in which to participate. Here are a few things to look for in quality "original" artists' prints.
- An original hand-signed artist's signature as opposed to just a printed artist's signature.
- Especially in later prints-a hand applied print number like "44/100" meaning # 44 out of a limited series of 100.
- Quality "laid" or rag paper. Many prints were executed on watermarked paper that can be detected when light shines through.
- Strong definition of line and if applicable, color. An original artist's print usually jumps off the paper.
- Quality framing. Prints collected long ago by connoisseurs are normally found in well-cared-for condition.
- In many print forms, the paper is often indented somewhat from stamping or print impressing
- Prints made up of microscopic perfectly aligned dots; or having tiny tears, stains etc. that are just pictures of imperfections, will be photographic or photomechanical prints of little artistic merit.
- As in all authentic art, the quality of the print and rank of the artist are a critical determinant of value.
While you are undoubtedly aware that James McNeil Whistler and Winslow Homer and other artists of their class worked in oil and pencil and watercolor, most also produced quality limited edition prints. Such works constitute a unique and appealing contribution to our artistic heritage and a strong opportunity for antique treasure hunters with an eye toward quality.