Hunting for a rare find is part of the fun
of collecting old prints. But first your eye must be trained
to recognize value. A good way to begin is by visiting museums,
libraries, and galleries specializing in old prints—places where
you know you're looking at the genuine article. Ask questions.
Read reference books about the areas or artists you like best.
Next, buy a couple of inexpensive prints to start your collection.
You may want to frame them, but first, examine them carefully.
Notice the feel, the patina, the aroma of an old print. Look
for indications of hand printing such as the impression from
the printing press or ink smudges, signs of age, the quality
and texture of the paper. Hold them up to a strong light and
look for a watermark in the paper, the kind you find in quality
stationary. Run your (clean) hand across to feel what's there.
Studying the reference books and viewing exhibits is invaluable,
but hands-on experience is a must as well.
There are many different types of 19th century
(or earlier) antique prints. They can generally be divided into
two classes: those made from metal printing plates and those
made from stones. From metal plates we get engravings, etchings,
aquatint, and mezzotints. Most of these will show a tell-tale
indentation in the paper corresponding to the outline of the
plate. From stones we get lithographs. All of these may be finished
by hand with watercolor. The aquatint engravings of The Birds
of America by John James Audubon are beautiful examples of
early hand coloring, and today are among the most valuable antique
prints in existence, as well as among the largest. Each print
was pulled from the press with the image in black and white.
After drying, each was completely hand colored by an expert colorist
using watercolor to match Audubon's original watercolor paintings.
This was done after the master engraver painstakingly worked
the design into a flat sheet of copper, line-by-line, inch-by-inch.
The entire process was a very tedious and time-consuming one.
Consequently, the resulting prints were expensive in their day
and are rare and valuable in ours.
As well as classifying prints by their medium,
we may also categorize them by their purpose. Some prints, like
old master prints, were done solely as works of art. Some, including
Audubon's natural history prints of birds and animals, were done
to be sold to the scientific community as informative supplements
to books and articles. We are indebted to botanists for beautiful
flower prints and other botanicals, and to ethnographers like
George Catlin and Karl Bodmer for historical American Indian
prints. Early cartographers have given us antique maps with sea
monsters and elaborate embellishments. All of these latter types,
though originally created for utilitarian needs, have tended
to become art over hundreds of years because so much time,
skill and artistic talent went into the making of each print.
It is a good idea to focus your collection.
You may want to collect only bird prints, maps, pure art prints,
or Indian prints. Perhaps just prints by one artist or prints
of one class, such as black and white lithographs, will provide
the focus for your collection. In any case, if you specialize,
you can become more knowledgeable in that particular area. Your
collection becomes more important, and therefore more valuable,
because it makes a statement. You will know more about prices
and values and will recognize a bargain, or a truly rare piece
that you may never see or have the opportunity to acquire again.
There are many sad stories about "the one that got away."
Like to solve mysteries? Try to determine if
a print is an actual antique or a modern reproduction. With today's
marvelous printing capabilities it is relatively easy to make
exact duplicates of any original old print. But you can learn
to tell the difference. Frequently a magnifying glass will reveal
the regular pattern of dots on a modern photographic reproduction.
Look for signs that an old print would exhibit: wear and tear,
spilled printer's ink, a smudge, slightly misapplied watercolor,
a plate mark, or a watermark. Compare to a known original. Again,
the more you focus on and know about a particular genre, artist
or medium that captures your interest, the better off you'll
As you develop your collection, make sure you
learn to care for it properly. Avoid excessive humidity, light,
or temperature. Don't handle the print itself any more than necessary.
Use protective matting or framing, but be sure to use acid free
materials. UF-3 plexiglas can be used to block harmful light
on framed pieces. Avoid glue, tape or other adhesives like the
plague! Use only wheat paste and rice paper to attach a print
to a matte. Do not cut or trim a print or puncture it with thumb
tacks. Simply try to maintain it in its original condition. If
it needs help, due to spotting, foxing, acid burn, or light damage,
take it to a professional paper conservator. If a print is valuable
enough to save, it deserves proper restoration, and a good professional
is worth the cost.
When you buy from a dealer, ask for a written
guarantee. Always buy the best print in the best condition you
can afford. Value is based on rarity and condition in any particular
area. The more people collecting in one area, the more the demand
will raise prices in that area. Other areas may be less expensive
but never forget condition. Later, as category increases in appeal,
the prices in the best condition will command a premium price.
Ask lots of questions. A knowledgeable dealer will be happy to
talk to interested clients. See if there is a buy-back policy,
or if you can trade a previous purchase toward a more valuable
or more satisfying piece. Do business with people who have a
good reputation. But do your homework, because you might know
more about a particular piece than the dealer. Many great buys
have been made right out of dealer's stock. Have fun, and happy