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Collecting Works on Paper: Quality, Condition and Value

The word “paper” derives from the ancient Greek word “papyrus” which is a material made from the papyrus plant and used in Egypt and around the Mediterranean Sea well before paper was first made in China. The first papermaking process is attributed to the Chinese court official Cai Lun during the Eastern Han period (25-220CE). The Chinese process spread to the Islamic world in the 8th century and migrated to Europe in the 11th century. It was in Medieval Europe that the papermaking process was improved with the use of the water-powered paper mill, producing paper that is similar to what we use today. The invention of paper played a significant role in the development of various cultures, religions and artistic developments. Art was made on paper well before canvas was used as a support, creating a long and rich history of works on paper.

Works on paper offer an affordable way to begin and art collection, or to pursue a decorative or academic interest in botanicals, insects or classical architecture. Connoisseurs and collectors in the 18th and 19th centuries collected prints and drawings as they travelled, creating eclectic portfolios of works from places they visited. The 21st century buyer interested in works on paper can focus on any number of topics or areas of interest, from historical battle prints to watercolors of favorite flowers. Old Master drawings and prints are an interesting and complex area of collecting where quality and condition play major roles.

The quality of a work of art is often subjective. Drawings that are more “worked” are usually more valuable than simple pencil studies. In the case of prints, the quality of the impression itself is important and can affect the value. The copper plate, wood block or lithographic stone used to print can wear over time so the earliest impressions of many prints are often stronger and more detailed. In the case of Old Master prints, the quality and depth of the impression helps to date the work, and in the case of many prints it can also help identify whether a print was made in the artist’s lifetime or later.

In all areas of collecting works on paper, the paper itself is very important. Buyers should look closely at the condition of the paper and understand what the condition issues may be. Paper that is stained, either by exposure to light or by being in contact with an acidic mat, can be treated by a paper conservator. Other issues, such as faded colors or abrasions to the surface, are harder to fix.

The condition of the paper is important in establishing the value of a work, especially in the case of prints. Because prints exist in multiples, there is sometimes the opportunity to pass on a damaged impression to wait for one in better condition to come on the market. However, in the case of very small editions, monoprints and many Old Master prints, it is hard to know when another impression will be available. The value of a print in excellent condition is often considerably higher than that of the same image with condition problems. Rare and sought-after prints retain their value despite condition issues in the same way that unique works do, making the pricing of these works complicated and full of variables. In general, a buyer should look at the quality of the work first and the condition second, keeping in mind that the value will be affected by both.

An example of a rare work on paper with condition issues fetching a high price at auction because of its rarity is Georg Wolfgang Knorr’s Insect Still Lifes, sold at Stair Galleries in April 2017:

Georg Wolfgang Knorr (1705-1761): Insect Still Lifes: A Pair, April 22-23, 2017, lot 5, estimate $2,000-3,000, sold $15,250.

The paper supports for these drawings had significant condition problems but, because the works are very rare, collectors were willing to pay significantly higher than the estimate as another opportunity to own one may not present itself.

An example of how the value of a print can be affected by a condition issue is Roy Lichtenstein’s Shipboard Girl, sold at Stair Galleries in December 2014:

Roy Lichtenstein (1923-1997): Shipboard Girl, December 6, 2014, lot 79, estimate $5,000-8,000, sold $17,080.

This iconic Lichtenstein image was very faded due to exposure to sunlight. Published by Leo Castelli in an edition of unknown size, this print can fade easily due to the quality of ink used in its printing. With bright, fresh colors, an impression of this print recently fetched $48,000 at auction.

Our August 9th Decorative Works on Paper auction focuses on prints and drawings from the 17th to 20th centuries, offering the opportunity to delve into the world of paper from many periods and in many different styles. Old Master prints, architectural views, botanicals and textile designs are among a few of the categories. Condition reports for each lot are available online, and all lots will be sold with no reserve.

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