Collecting Antique Prints

Tips for the beginning collector of antique prints

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Where to begin

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.

Stones or metal plates?

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.

Illustrations or art?

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.

Find a focus

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."

Old treasure or modern fraud?

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 be.

Caring for your collection

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're ready to buy

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 hunting.

Thanks to Joe McDonough.

Originally appeared in
The Collector’s Guide to Santa Fe and Taos - Volume 2

Related Pages

Conserving Works of Art on Paper article
Contemporary Lithography article
Digital Fine Art article

Glossary of Prints and Original Graphics Terms article
Reproduction or Print—What's the Difference? article

Collector’s Resources

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