INVESTING IN PRINTS
INVESTING IN PRINTS
Here's how to ensure the prints you buy hold or grow in value for the long haul.
Diving right in — when it comes to prints versus other types of fine art, how does their value change over time on the secondary market? Do you see any differences?
Like anything in the art world, it works on an artist-by-artist basis. If you have a large group of prints by an artist, and people aren't looking at it, that can be tough. But generally speaking, if an artist's painting market is pretty solid, the print market for that artist is typically similar —or maybe even a bit stronger because prints aren't as difficult for someone to jump in and buy.
At the same time, certain artists who have made interesting prints also offer bargains in the print world as, for whatever reason, the strong collector base for their other work never really transferred over to their print work. Prints by De Kooning, Philip Guston, and Bruce Nauman — three artists who are great printmakers — are surprisingly affordable compared to one of their drawings on paper. That also opens the door to the fact that many artists who like making prints attack them differently than a canvas. For whatever reason or coincidence, those three artists have primarily made black-and-white prints or one-color lithographs. I suppose they thought of their printmaking in that way. You could look at Rembrandt or Durer and say the same thing [laughs].
If you take that group, which is 60 years out of date, you could say their prints have held up well, but they haven't really gone up that much [in price]. Collectors used to buying Bruce Nauman already feel like they're buying his prints out of love.
Absolutely! And would you say that, minus the very notable exceptions you mentioned, the value correlation between an artist's non-print work and their print work usually holds up?
As far as young printmakers, I think it depends. There's still a learning curve. So many artists are making traditional paintings now, but I would say many haven't explored traditional printmaking. They might have done digital prints as a more reproductive thing, whereas, say, Nicole Eisenman pushes the boundaries of printmaking to explore all ways of making a print. She's one of those truly masterful artists. Her paintings go for six figures, but her prints still cost under $10,000 in many cases. She works on her prints the same way Picasso did, as far as really experimenting and using the idea of using printmaking to find aesthetic solutions. You don't want a print to feel didactic. You want to feel like the artist was somehow creating a new image.
Do prints experience the same trends as the art market overall? And have you noticed any revealing trends in the print market lately?
Yeah, I think prints are very much in keeping with that. The art world is one thing, but the amount of people in the art world who actually buy art is another. And then, the amount of people who can afford big artworks is another thing. Yet there's a contingent of people who want to collect, live with and enjoy these things, too. Prints are their market.
Sometimes people say, "Oh, I'd rather have a drawing than a print." But I think there are some not-so-great drawings out there, and the beauty of a print is that the artist can work it over up until the moment it goes to edition. I'd rather have a great print than a so-so drawing.
I think the art world sees of the idea of "uniqueness" as more important and valuable, but a great print with iconic imagery that the artist has worked on and refined can rival this. Hopefully, they had a great printer as a collaborator, so their ideas can be explored and pushed.
Other than their price point, is there anything else that makes prints a particularly good entry point for people who want to start purchasing art?
For people just starting to collect, you get a real thrill from buying something from an artist you're familiar with and interested in. So, when you see something available in your price range, you go for it. That's why I would love to see more young artists who paint connect with some great printmakers.
My job is dealing with prints, and much of my own artmaking plays with quantity, such as using editions and multiples to take art "off its pedestal," so to speak. I'm a firm believer in artists exploring. If an artist's paintings sell for $10,000 or $20,000, they probably have gallerists saying, "No, you don't want to water down your market with a $500 or $1,000 print." Personally, I don't think they are watering it down. I think they're expanding their fan base.
Going into a bit of a history lesson, it was during the WPA [Works Progress Administration] when Associated American Artists published tons of prints. It was basically a mail-order type of thing, focusing a lot on one-color lithographs. There were hundreds of different artists making prints. People today wouldn't know most of their names, but their work was very stylistically in keeping with that period. And there are small auctions that show up now, and sometimes you'll see 50 of these prints selling for $50 or $100. But maybe they were $5 or $10 when they came out in 1935. So, I think you could jump into it in all different ways. Maybe your first print is from 1935, and your second is from 2024?
Let's say someone is just starting to explore prints. Other than what they're aesthetically drawn to, are there any foundational things they should have in mind before they make any final decisions?
I think learning about some printmaking techniques is a good idea. Typically, museums have print galleries, so when you visit MOMA or The Met, their collections might spark an interest. Maybe you'll suddenly say, "Oh, I really love woodcuts. I was going to get a work from a certain artist, but I'm going to wait for a woodcut versus a lithograph or etching." I think that bit of background can't hurt.
If a print isn't numbered or you don't know the edition size, and there could be 300 or 500 of them, you should definitely consider that versus something that might have an edition size of 50. Many artists have their own websites these days, so even if they're not the person you speak to directly, you can contact that artist and ask where you can find their prints. They might tell you, "Oh, I made this as a fundraiser for this place," or they might lead you to the gallery they gave ten prints to last year, and they're in a flat file in the back.
There is some diligence involved with any form of collecting. If you talk to a collector looking at $80-million paintings, they'll feel like they've been extremely diligent about their search, too.
We spoke about the correlation in value between an artist's print work and their non-print work. Is there a similar correlation between the edition size of a print and its value, collectability, or desirability? Or is that also artist-dependent?
It's artist-dependent and image-dependent. I can give you some black-and-white examples. There's a Hockney print that's about 13-by-nine inches. It's a color lithograph of a swimming pool, and it's a very concise image. It's the size of a page in a book. It's all the colors you want it to be. The print was part of a book; it was always a loose print, signed and numbered, but issued with a book. I don't know the original cost — probably three figures — and the edition is 1,000. Yet, these prints now go for $30,000, $50,000, or $80,000. The edition size of 1,000 has not turned anyone off at all. It's just a very perfect image that people like. Some Hockney prints in an edition of 25 wouldn't be as desirable.
Let's say you want to purchase a print from a younger artist — someone who isn't one of those massive 20th-century figures everyone knows. Of course, you can never be sure where someone's career will go, but are there any signifiers people can look for in prints that point to it being a good investment?
The big elephant in any gallery is price. You want to say to someone, "Don't be cheap. I know it sounds extravagant, but if you love the $3,000, 30" x 40" print, and you think it's amazing and exactly what you wanted. Don't go for the $1,200 or $800 one that you don't love as much simply because it's cheaper."
I have personally paid for artwork over time. I can't imagine any gallery saying, "No, we will not let you pay something off over time." My advice would be to always figure out how to get the one you really want. Maybe it takes you six months or a year to pay it off, but then you have the one you really wanted, and it's a gem versus one that will always remind you of the one you actually loved.
Last one for you: Do you get the sense that the market for prints is growing? And if so, do you see things continuing that way?
I think that, in one way, it is growing. I'm not a social media person, but I do know that social media speeds everything up. Prints are part of that snowball effect. Some publishers today are really taking on artists and producing things every week and every month. That's really exciting. I think some very serious publishers out there are really putting things out. That's an important factor. But I also really encourage every artist to explore the medium as opposed to, you know, calling it in with a digital print.