Currier & Ives - America's Printmakers - Part II
Nathaniel Currier was tall, thin, and fair. James M. Ives was short, plump, and dark. Standing side by side, the congenial partners probably looked like the number a discerning scoring judge would attach to their business-a perfect 10. In the second half of the 19th century the Currier and Ives Company produced and sold over 10 million "Colored Engravings for the People" on nearly 10,000 subjects. They published over 700 different prints on horse racing alone.
Lithographs were priced according to size. A richly detailed "large folio," a print exceeding 14" by 20," retailed in 1870 from $3 to $5. "Small and medium folio" prints, app. 9" by 14" to 14" by 20," were priced from $1 to $3. "Very small folio" prints, up to 7" by 9," usually sold for about 20 cents. I mention these size designations because are still employed by collectors today. Other things being equal, the bigger price for bigger print principle still holds true as well.
Currier & Ives's collecting is a worthwhile as a hobby and investment because the prints are historical, attractive , available, and somewhat affordable-on a scale. I suggest working your way up the ladder. A 19th century framed small folio print of a toddler can still be found for under $50. A cat print will be a little more. A large "still-life" of fruit generally is priced around $150. After you've bagged a few common Currier and Ives you might set your sites on bigger game. Impressive large folio Clipper Ship engravings normally exceed $1,000. Rare whaling and train prints can exceed $5,000. One of the most coveted examples over the last 50 years (now commanding $20,000+) is the large folio Life of a Hunter-A Tight Fix. This winter scene print depicts a snarling grizzly bearing down on an unfortunate woodsman. In 1991, with big-spending baseball collectors entering into the competition, a whopping $44,000 was fetched at auction for the full folio The American National Game of Base Ball.
Currier & Ives prints have been faked in great number. One such example is a small folio version of the famous baseball print. This rascal has battered many a dealer and collector over the years. The best way to insure you don't get "stuck" is to purchase Currier and Ives's from a respected specialist in the field. If you stumble upon one at a tag sale, shop, or country auction and feel like gambling, here's a few tips.
1. In gauging the intrinsic value of a print (this rule-of-thumb holds true with most antiques) try to discern affluence of the room where it will eventually moor. Is the print well suited for an attorney's office or her daughter's room? Ship, trotting horse, city view, sporting, and bold Americana scenes fetch high prices compared to religious, political, and sentimental views because they are impressive and add weight as to the purse of their possessor.
2. Inspect the print with a jeweler's loop or powerful magnifying glass. If you see a series of tiny geometrically spaced dots, like putting your eyeball up to a TV screen, the print is a "photolithographic" reproduction. Currier and Ives produced all their prints in black and white and employed artisans to hand-color them before merchandising. Please note that some Currier and Ives reproductions are tricky-with no "dots" to alert you of their spurious nature.
3. Inspect for condition. Prints with brownish watermarks, foxing or sun-bleaching should be avoided by novices unless they are purchased for a fraction of their "book price." Craig McClain wrote the best such guide called An Illustrated Value Guide, Currier & Ives. Prints with tears, rips, and clipped boarders should be likewise be avoided as they have little investment value in today's market.