“Want to come up and see my etchings?”
The opportunity to throw out a line like this may be one motive to collect prints, but there are much better reasons. Collecting prints is the auction equivalent of “having your cake and eating it too.”
“Print” is a broad term that, in the context of fine art, refers to a work for which the artist creates the printing matrix, such as an etched plate, a lithographic stone, or a carved woodblock, and uses this to create multiple impressions of an image.
The artist may or may not be the actual printer, but generally approves of the quality and methodology of printing, and often signs his or her prints by hand.
Prints tend to be smaller in scale than paintings – unless you’re looking at Modern and Contemporary works – and generally invite the close, intimate scrutiny that a smaller space engenders. This intimacy lends itself extremely well to adorning the walls of a regular-sized home.
If you have a limited budget—as many of us do—you should consider collecting prints.
Because of their very nature, prints are less expensive than paintings. This means that in the print market you may be able to afford top quality works by blue chip artists. Prints are multiples, rather than one-of-a-kind works of art, so clearly they are less rare. This also means that condition is extremely important. In buying a unique work, if you absolutely love the image you may be more accepting of some minor condition problems.
With prints, however, the rules change. Consider an iconic etching like Edward Hopper’s Night Shadows of 1921. If this is the print you want, then you have options. This work was printed in an edition of 500. The very next one to come up at auction might be laid down or have trimmed margins or staining — all negative condition issues that will reduce its value. If you are willing to overlook those problems, you can purchase one of those 500 etchings for $15,000 or less. Or, you can hold out for a fantastic impression in pristine condition for $40,000.
The Hopper in poor condition may still be beyond your budget, but consider the work of Thomas Hart Benton Perhaps you wish to buy an oil painting, just a small one, like Threshing. This wonderful little oil measures a mere 10 x 13 inches. If it is your heart’s desire, be ready to spend $500,000 or $600,000. That’s the price of a house, and is simply beyond most budgets. And that doesn’t even address the cost of a major Benton – his top record at auction is over $4.8 million.
Thomas Hart Benton also made a lithograph called Threshing. It is very similar in both size and composition to the oil. This eponymous print can be purchased for $3,000 to $5,000. While not a steal, it is only a mortgage payment or two. If you’ are in love, you can save up a few mortgage payments for the splurge.
My advice to you is, “have your house and decorate it too.”
Should you collect prints or paintings? One of the cardinal rules is of collecting is, “buy the best you can afford.” Collecting prints allows new collectors and collectors of modest means to do just that.
To learn more about the prints of Thomas Hart Benton, you might enjoy Expressionism in Regionalist Prints: Thomas Hart Benton and Grant WoodOriginally published November 23, 2010. Revised and updated January 13, 2012.