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Collecting Prints: A Buyer’s Guide

A print is any work of art made through a transfer process in multiple iterations. There are many different types of printmaking  but the main techniques include intaglio printing such as etching and aquatint, and planar printing like lithography and screenprinting. Many artists include printmaking in their regular practice, either as a focus of their work or as an adjacent medium. Because prints are produced in editions of more than one impression, their innate value is more modest than a unique work of art, making print collecting a great way to start or add to an art collection. It is also a great way to own an iconic image form a favorite artist without a six-figure price tag!

To create a fine art print, an artist works in close collaboration with a printer and a printing studio. This is particularly true with modern and contemporary prints. The edition is published by a print publisher, or sometimes by the artist or studio, and will often bear the chop mark of the printer and/or the printmaking studio. Chop marks are blindstamps impressed into the paper that can help identify where a print was made.

Print editions are decided by the artist and publisher. Each impression that is made is numbered out of the total edition. If an edition is to have a total of 50 impressions, each of those will be numbered out of 50, for example 19/50. Proofs aside from the numbered edition will also be pulled in the studio and are known as printer’s proofs, artist’s proof, trial proofs or color proofs. The value of proofs is generally the same as that for the numbered edition unless it is a color proof that is different, or a proof for an earlier version of the final image. In some instances, color proofs are considered “unique” works and can be more valuable. When the artist and printmaker decide that the image is the way they want it to be, a proof is made that is called bon a tirer, or ready to print. The numbered edition is then made to match this image.

The choice of paper is a very important part of the prinmaking process. Both artists and print collectors are known to be obsessed with paper in all its forms and variations. The Pop artists printed on inexpensive often “found” paper in the 1960s to emphasize that they were meant to be owned by anyone, while Jasper Johns is known to have pushed for more expensive papers of higher quality. Many artists choose handmade paper and paper made in Japan which is know to have interesting textures and lend themselves well to woodcut and lithographic printing.

Caring for prints is very important as they are fragile works on paper and can suffer the vagaries of weather and poor storage. It is worth paying more to have a print properly mounted and framed in archival material. Improperly framed and stored, a print can be damaged and loose its value over time. If a print has bright colors, don’t hang it where it is exposed to light as the colors will fade quickly. Always keep works on paper away from moisture and high heat, like a radiator or electric heat. And when framing a print, never trim the margins to fit a frame—the artist chose the piece of paper for its size so it should not be cut for framing.

When looking at prints to add to a collection, it is important to focus on the condition. As prints are made in multiples, there could be an opportunity to find the same image in better condition. However, balancing condition and price should be taken into consideration. An expensive print in excellent condition might be more affordable with a few small condition issues, some of which could be helped by a good paper restorer. Rare prints, or prints made in very small editions, come on the market infrequently and their value may not be affected by a condition issue. Many artists’ prints are documented in a catalogue raisonne that can be consulted to confirm the total number of prints in the edition and where it was printed.

The Collection of Lois B. Torf offers the opportunity to see a large group of prints by many different artists and in many different printmaking techniques. Included are prints by famous artists as well as those lesser-known. We hope that one of the prints in this collection will catch your eye and lead you into the fascinating world of printmaking and collecting.

Time & Location

Prints from the Collection of Lois B. Torf
Wednesday, December 1 at 11am

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