Monday, October 2, 2017

What's This Print Worth?

Daniel W. Deyell, ISA, MA, MTS
Inevitably, art appraisers get the email or text message: “I have this art work on paper; what’s it worth?” Just about as inevitably, I have to say, “the value of the frame!” I may be exaggerating, but potential clients can have trouble discerning original works of art from reproductions, and may not understand that reproductions tend to be worth far less than the original.

As an appraiser, it helps to understand the basic processes of printmaking in order to determine whether the item you’re appraising is a reproduction or not. In this post, I will describe the main techniques and touch on some important developments in the world of printmaking so you’ll have a better understanding next time you see one of these items.

What Is a Print?


The original print is an image that has been conceived by the artist as a print. It is produced as a print, not as a drawing, painting, or three-dimensional work. Each print is considered an original; no one print or drawing or painting is considered the original prototype from which other prints are made. The size of the edition, or the number of prints produced, is decided by the artist and the prints (after a small number of artist’s proofs) are numbered sequentially. Subsequent production of any prints or print editions should be differentiated by “states” of the prints and suffer corresponding depreciation of value.

Note: the blanket statement, “[just] the value of the frame,” may not be always accurate for reproductions if they gain value outside the field of art (as a recent auction of movie posters demonstrated), but if the appraiser’s focus is works of art rather than collectibles, reproductions are substantially less important than any object directly created by an artist. Additionally, some prints by artists (think Paul Gauguin's monoprints or works by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec) may be of significant value. Appraisers are encouraged to do research and approach the topic of prints with care when assigning value to an item.

Printmaking Processes


While the field of printmaking and multiples today has become muddier as contemporary artists explore techniques of photo-mechanical processes for their own art creation, it’s important for appraisers to get acquainted with the classical processes of creating multiple art images first, before venturing into contemporary artistic multiples processing.

Printmaking processes
(courtesy of the Printers' National Environmental Assistance Center)

Classic methods of processing multiples (like etchings, engravings, relief prints, lithography, and serigraphy) and even contemporary processes (like some giclée prints) result in works of art because the artists intentionally use those processes to create individual works of art unique to the medium. The fact that a work is created in multiple numbers of prints or sculptures is a result of the artist’s intention, not a result of the efficiency of the process.

Based on this criteria, an artist who employs offset lithography or giclée printing to reproduce the image of a painting does not create a new work of art; if an appraiser can reference a framed picture back to an identical painted picture, the subject of investigation is a reproduction and deserves the evaluation, “only the value of the frame!”

The traditional forms of printmaking include:
  • Intaglio (also known as “gravure” to commercial printers). Includes etching, engraving, drypoint, aquatint, and mezzotint. Images are created on a metal or plastic plate by direct incisions, or by using acid to incise lines or pits into the plates. These incisions or pits are filled with ink, which is then transferred to a medium such as paper to produce an image.
  • Relief. Includes wood block, lino cut, and stonecut. In relief printmaking, material is removed from a base of wood, linoleum, stone, or even potato to leave a relief that is then inked and pressed against a medium such as paper to produce an image.

    Relief carving for stone cut print

  • Planographic. Includes lithograph, serigraph (aka silkscreen), and stencil. Lithographic stones or metal plates are prepared to receive oily or greasy drawings which adhere ink to the drawings, and are then transferred to a medium such as paper to produce an image. Stencils can be created using a variety of media, and are sometimes attached to screens (now usually fine nylon screens), through which ink is pressed with a squeegee onto a medium like paper to produce an image. Planographic printmaking usually does not include offset (or photo) litho, inkjet, or giclée, although some conceptual artists have deliberately used those processes for creating multiples.
Pulling an image from a lithograph stone


Printmaking through History


Prints from the 14th and 15th centuries to the early modern era were not usually numbered. They may carry the names of the printer as well as the artist in the image.

Since the early 20th century, traditional prints have usually included signatures in pencil with notations of print number out of (/) a numbered edition. Signatures however, do not guarantee authenticity of a traditional process, nor do they guarantee a limit on the number of works in an addition or numbers of editions or states. (For instance, a very well-known twentieth century artist issued editions of 5000 silkscreens each for a number of regions of North America and Europe). Any work containing a signature added (in pencil or pen, for instance) to an image that already has a painted signature is more than likely a reproduction.

Passing ink through a screen with a squeegee

In the past few decades, a number of artists have begun to explore computer-generated art, including digital printing with processes like giclée (which confusingly is more often a popular process to produce high-quality reproductions). Photography, which also can result in multiple images, is considered a completely separate field of artistic process.

What to Remember About Printmaking


The differentiation of original works of art as multiples from reproductions occurs when the artist is directly involved to some degree in the creation of the works of art. If the work being examined is directly the result of the creative process, it is an original print.

If the work is a copy of an image created at another time, in another size, in a different medium whether by the artist or not, whether signed (again) or not, it has been produced to be marketed more broadly without further artistic contribution and it is a reproduction.
Artist wiping an etching plate with ink

Daniel Deyell is a member of the International Society of Appraisers, He has twenty years’ experience in the field of fine arts and earned degrees in art and art history from University of Regina and University of British Columbia supplemented with professional museum and arts management certificates from Banff Centre and American Law Institute/American Bar Association. He has worked with public art galleries across Western Canada, including Mackenzie Art Gallery, Mendel Art Gallery, Glenbow, Alberta College of Art Gallery, Muttart Art Gallery, Penticton Art Gallery, Vancouver Art Gallery and International Museum of Cultures in Dallas in varying roles from preparatory to curatorial to managerial. At the Mendel, he prepared condition reports and digitized the catalogued collection of 4,400 objects for inclusion in a museum collection database.

Recommended Reading:
Glossary of commonly-used terms related to printmaking

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