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5 FAQs about Planks, Plates and Plinths: Let’s talk about prints. Installment #1

Lot 3118 in our Spring Quarterly Auction: Jacques Callot (French, 1592-1635),

etching on paper of a boar hunt

As the resident print specialist here at Bunch Auctions, I hear a lot of rather disconcerting misconceptions regarding prints from both consignors and buyers. The term “print” has become a catch-all for any artwork that wasn’t created with brush- or pen strokes, and that leaves a lot of room for error, especially in the marketplace, and dangerously trivializes the myriad categories and processes that produce illustrations. The realm of prints is vast and complicated, and to be honest, I can’t keep giving crash courses to clients in the middle of auction days. So, over the next several weeks, I will decode the different types and gradations of prints that commonly sell at auction (and then when people ask me questions I can just direct them to our blog). Before diving into the centuries-old technologies that allow prints to exist, I’m going to use this first installment to address some of the common questions and concerns I get about prints.

“Is this original artwork or a print?”

Ah yes, the bread and butter of problematic art questions. “Original artwork” and “prints” are not mutually exclusive terms. Plenty of artists worked strictly in print media and produced stunning and valuable pieces without ever picking up a paintbrush. What most people mean when asking this is “Is this a reproduction of a unique painting [or drawing]?” That’s a fair question; no one wants to buy a framed poster from a museum gift shop when they thought they were getting oil on canvas. But it is important to differentiate between reproductions and prints.

“They must be worth more than that; these are original prints!”

“Original print” might be my least favorite phrase in the English language. By nature of the process, no print is truly original. Prints are created by an artist putting a design on a durable medium (copperplate, stone, woodblock, etc.) and printing the image on another medium. The “original” stage of the process is the piece of metal, stone or wood that bears the artist’s design, which no one is framing and hanging on the wall. There’s a very tiny category of print in the 20th century wherein some artists would create illustration plates and print only one copy, then destroy the plate so it could not be printed again; this is the closest thing to an “original print” in the canon.

Lot 3244: Salvador Dali (Spanish, 1904-1989), etching, self portrait as Napoleon

“Is this a lithograph or a print?”

Lithographs are prints. All of them. But I get why this question is common.

Lithography was invented in the late 18th century and was gaining international popularity around the time of the first photographic processes, and it was still in industrial use well into the 20th century. It’s a process that involves the artist putting his design on a flat stone that can be printed thousands of times. (I’ll get into the nitty gritty in a later blog post.) While it was cheap and efficient for its day, the technology used a lot of big, heavy instruments. So when it was possible reproduce lithographs photographically, that made more fiscal sense. Thus, a lot of images that began as lithographs were replaced by photographic reproductions, and since lithographs do not have a plate mark, it can be difficult to tell them apart without examining them out of frame under magnification.

Lot 3325: Portrait of Benjamin Franklin, lithograph by Charles G Crehen after Fredericks

“It has a certificate of authenticity, so it must be good.”

When it comes to prints, COAs are fraught for a couple of reasons. 1) They’re easy to forge and difficult to authenticate. 2) Dealers have been known to issue them in order to fool buyers into thinking their prints are valuable. This practice became common in the 1960s and 70s, when prints were being published in huge editions too numerous to be individually pencil signed and numbered by the artist, so a COA offered an air of collectability to what were actually pretty worthless pieces. Think about it: you’re on vacation in and want to pick up a souvenir. You go into a craft shop and the proprietor is selling “hand-made” trinkets. Each comes with a slip of paper that says it was made by hand in the country you’re visiting. Anyone could have typed it up, but are you going to question the validity of that statement? Doesn’t it make you feel like what you’re buying is more genuine and valuable than the tchotchkes in the hotel gift shop?

“Are prints more valuable if they’re framed?”

In general, no. Unless the frame is a dynamite antique or the print is not worth much, unframed prints are preferable in the market. In fact, most buyers remove prints from their frames before even taking them out of the auction house. Frames might seem like they’re keeping your artwork safe while on display, but a lot of the time they do more harm than good, especially if they were framed long ago since archival standards did not come into play in framing practice until pretty recently. Matting and backing included in frames are not always acid-free, and can cause abrasions and discoloration to prints. Previous owners who didn’t have a mind to the proper conservation of their artwork may have trimmed the sheets to fit a frame, taped or glued the print to the mat, or sealed the print inside the frame. This isn’t to say you shouldn’t frame prints. If you want to display them, take your prints to a proper framing shop and insist they use archival materials and do not trim the sheet. It’ll cost you, but homecooked framing jobs put artwork at risk.

Lot 3316: Howard Frech, 20th C American, original etching

All prints pictured here will be auctioned Tuesday, March 20, in our Spring Quarterly Auction. Check out the catalog on our website now, and be sure to check back here for future installments of “Planks, Plates, and Plinths.”

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