So how can you tell how rare a particular print is? My answer is that it is usually difficult to tell other than by general experience. At the Print Shop we see hundreds of new prints each month, we view print lists on the web and in auction and dealer catalogues, we visit print exhibitions and collections around the country, and we look at every new print reference book or journal that comes out. Over a quarter of a century of this has given us a lot of experience with what prints are “out there,” and this in turn gives us a general sense of when a particular print or type of print is fairly common or quite scarce. However, most people don’t have the length and breath of our experience and unfortunately each other method for judging how rare a print is has problems.
Using Google to search the internet for a print is probably the most common way that people try to tell if a print is particularly rare. There is an amazing amount of information on prints on the web, including dealer inventory, eBay listings, institutional holdings, and so forth. If a particular print shows up regularly on the web, in dealer stock or on eBay for instance, this is probably a good indication that the print is not particularly rare. However, the absence of a print from the web does not necessarily indicate it is rare. What prints are listed on the internet is simply a matter what prints someone has put on the web, not what prints are “out there” in the real world. There has a been a lot of effort by many people and institutions to put up sites with listings of different kinds of prints (and future postings will document many of these), but there are also many fine collections in existence and research on prints done where the information about those prints has not been put up on the web.
So, for instance, almost every antique print of Niagara Falls has been posted to the Impressions of Niagara web site of the Castellani Art Museum, but views of Chicago are hardly represented on the web at all. The absence of any hits on Google for a particular Chicago print is not necessarily an indication of its scarcity so much as a reflection of the fact hardly anyone has posted information on this topic. Likewise, a print that shows up all the time on eBay can be assumed to be fairly common, but there are thousands of prints—some common and some not—that have never been listed on eBay. It is just as likely they have not been listed because sellers do not think the prints will sell for very much rather than the fact that they are rare. The number of prints appearing on web sites and being listed on eBay and similar sites is growing all the time, but mere absence of a particular print from the internet does not allow one to conclude the print itself is rare.
Likewise with listings of prints (either on the web or in print) by dealers and auction houses. Dealers and auction houses will list only those prints that they think will sell for a reasonable amount. Many prints are too obscure, too damaged, too insignificant, or are just on unpopular subjects and these will tend not to appear in dealer or auction house listings. The absence of a particular print from such listings thus can mean that it is not very valuable, rather than that it is particularly scarce. As an example, religious prints as a whole tend not to sell that well (look for a future post on this topic) so many never get listed or are listed only as part of a “group of religious prints.”
Similarly, lists of institutional holdings on the web or in books are not usually very good guides to the scarcity of a print. More and more institutions are putting their collections on-line (another future post subject), and many have catalogues listing their prints, but what prints are so listed depends on a number of factors that makes these lists imperfect indicators of overall scarcity. Not all institutions have the funds or inclination to publish lists of their holdings. Not all subjects nor types of prints are held in institutions; what collections there are is usually a matter of the history of a particular institution or the particular interest of a major donor or collector. A reasonably common print might appear in only a few cases or not at all in institutions listings simply because few institutions have it in their collection.
On the other hand, the appearance of a print in institutional listings does not mean it is not very rare. Many collections were put together diligently over many years so that very rare prints often appear in a number of institutions. Historical prints have been treasured and collected since the eighteenth century, particularly in places like Boston, New York and Philadelphia, and many of the rarest ones have ended up in institutions. These prints are often of considerable interest and value, and so they are quite likely to have been documented by several of those institutions. Thus it is that an extremely rare print may appear in a number of institutional listings, in contrast to the common prints which appear in none.
Print reference books or articles can be fairly accurate indicators of scarcity, especially if there is a good “standard” reference on the type of print in question. There are many types of prints for which there is no good reference, but more and more excellent print references are appearing on the web and in print in recent years (another future post topic). The lack of mention of a particular print in a well researched, relevant reference listing is probably a good indication that the print is scarce. The recently issued book Panorama of Pittsburgh lists every known, printed image of the city from the nineteenth century. This list was based on an assiduous search of institutions and collections around the country, together with an extensive local search by Pittsburgh scholars and collectors. Thus is would be a fair assumption that a print of Pittsburgh from the nineteenth century not listing in Panorama would be quite rare. (The Print Shop has posted an on-line listing of any newly discovered, “previously unrecorded” prints of Pittsburgh.)
Likewise, Currier & Ives prints have been seriously documented ever since the early twentieth century, most importantly in Frederic A. Conningham’s checklist first published in 1949 and the Gale Research two-volume checklist from 1984. Because these prints are so widely popular and have been studied by numerous scholars over many years, one can conclude that any Currier & Ives print not previously recorded is indeed very rare. (The AHPCS web site will soon be posting a listing of all previously unrecorded Currier & Ives prints.)
So, other than through the use of a comprehensive reference book, is it possible to figure out how rare a print is? The answer is sometimes yes. Probably the best way to start is to consult with interested persons who have wide experience. Many dealers, auctioneers, scholars and curators will have had extensive experience with different types of prints and they often will have a good sense of whether a print is fairly common or quite scarce. There are also some clues that one can get from a study of the prints themselves.
- Is the subject popular or not? A print with a popular subject is more likely to be listed for sale or in a reference book, so the absence of a listing of such a print is an indication of scarcity. An unpopular print, though, might not be listed anywhere simply because it is unpopular.
- How many would have been produced? There are very few records that tell us how many impressions of a particular print were produced, but if you think about the intended market for a print, you can often get an idea of whether the run was tiny or huge. Currier & Ives prints were intended to be sold cheaply to as many people around the country as possible, and so they would rarely issue a print in a small run; most of their prints were printed in the many thousands. In contrast, any nineteenth century print of a local church was probably issued in a small number intended just for the members of its congregation. If a print started off as part of a very small run, it will undoubtedly be rare today and a print from a huge run is more likely to be not so rare, even if not many have been found listed anywhere.
- What process was used to make the print? The answer to this query helps to answer the previous question. The nature of the printing process used for a woodcut or copper engraving physically limited the number of possible impressions to a fairly small number, whereas a steel-faced wood engraving, steel engraving or lithograph could be run off in huge numbers.
- In what format was the print issued? If a print was separately issued as a single sheet of paper, the odds of it surviving over the years is quite small. As most framing up until the last twenty years or so was not done archivally, a separately issued print put into a frame would be subject to stains, acid-burns, sunlight bleaching, and so forth, so that many framed prints would not have survived over time. And, of course, if a print was not framed but kept as a separate sheet of paper, it would be subject to tearing or otherwise being destroyed in handling or non-archival storage. In contrast, a print issued bound into a book or in a portfolio was better protected and so would have a higher chance of survival.
- What size is the print? Larger prints are much more subject to storage and handling problems and so have a lower survival rate than small prints.
- How “special” was the print when issued? A print that was considered to be of particular value when issued would tend to have been treated with greater care and so would be more likely to survive reasonably well. A print that was just an cheap, ephemeral object when issued—things like small popular prints, advertising posters, tickets, illustrated stationary—would frequently either have been stuck on the wall without great care or used and then tossed out. Such prints were often issued in large numbers, but very few were treated with the care necessary for them to survive over the years.
One final thought on the subject of print scarcity: does scarcity increase value? In a general sense the answer is “of course.” Value comes from the interplay of supply and demand. If supply is limited, this drives up the price. All things being equal, a rarer print will generally sell for more than a similar one that is more common. On the other hand, scarcity really has relatively little to do with establishing the value of most prints. Yes, a scarce print is worth more than a similar common print, but this is only relative to its intrinsic value, which is driven more by demand than by supply. If there is little or no demand, a unique example of a print could have almost no value. A print of an obscure individual by a bad artist produced in a crude manner will have relatively little value even if only one example exists. On the other hand, a fairly common print can still have significant value. For instance, Currier & Ives’ series of American Homestead prints are more common than many of their other American scenes, but these prints are also among the most beloved of the firm’s output. Indeed, it was the popularity of this series at the time they were produced that is the main reason they are more common today; in response to demand, Currier & Ives issued these prints in large runs over many years. Their continued popularity today means that their value is relatively high even though they are more common than many lower valued prints.