Throughout history, the production of prints was intended as a relatively inexpensive way of creating images that could be distributed in multiple examples. That was the whole point of most antique prints—that information could be transmitted or a decorative image could be produced that would reach many people at an affordable price. This is in contrast to hand-lettered documents or drawings, watercolors and paintings, where wide distribution was usually not the goal.
There are, of course, some prints that were made in relatively small numbers, designed to be more expensive objects intended for a wealthy buyer. John James Audubon’s double elephant folio bird prints, Robert Thornton’s Temple of Flora, Karl Bodmer’s images of American Indians are examples of series of prints issued in small numbers, produced by means of elaborate printmaking processes, and intended for an upper-class audience. Similarly, fine art prints were often designed to be valuable and collectable, and the whole notion of numbering a print was introduced in the late nineteenth century in order to demonstrate that a print was not issued in large numbers, and so to preserve its value through scarcity.
Many of the most famous antique prints are “up market” like this (which makes sense, since valuable prints tend to get more notice than inexpensive ones), but in terms of number produced, there are far more prints that were aimed at the lower or middle classes, prints designed to be affordable and distributed widely. Many antique prints were produced for ornamentation, designed to be displayed as decoration in a gathering place, a home or a work place. These prints were often well made and quite beautiful, but they were not originally intended to be particularly valuable nor collectible.
Of course some of these prints have subsequently become quite valuable and collectible (Currier & Ives prints are a good example), but the majority of antique prints have remained to this day what they originally were intended to be, viz. affordable, decorative art. The mere fact that a print is old, or that it may be quite scarce (see earlier blog on this subject), does not mean that the print will be particularly valuable.
We get queries almost every day asking about the value of this or that antique print, through email, in our shop, on the phone, and when we are doing appraisals for the Antiques Roadshow. Probably 90% of the prints we are asked about have only what we call “decorative value.” By this we mean that the value of the print is whatever someone would pay to hang something that looks like that on his or her wall.
“Decorative value” has, of course, a very wide range, from a few dollars to hundreds of dollars. The decorative value of a print depends on the subject matter, what the item looks like in terms of decorative appeal and color, as well as its physical nature, such as its the size, condition, and whether it is framed or not. The decorative value of a particular print can also vary by region and by the venue in which it is being sold. “Decorative value” is thus a rather vague notion, but it does encompass the value of the vast majority of antique prints that one is apt to come across.
When we tell people that their prints have “only” decorative value (which is by far our most common reply to the queries we receive), the reaction of the owner is usually disappointment. News stories about very valuable antiques and the high appraised values for many antiques on the Antiques Roadshow have raised the public’s expectations, or at least hopes, for the value of object they own, so some disappointment is inevitable. However, there is nothing wrong at all with owning a print with only decorative value. Prints are wonderful for what they are, not just for how much they are worth.
When we tell someone that their print has decorative value, we also try to tell them why their print is still special. As discussed above, most antique prints were not intended to be valuable items, but to be decorative items, and most antique prints do that job extremely well. The range of quality and subjects is huge, but each antique print still has its own, unique decorative charm. If it is appreciated for that, then it should be treasured item. Also, antique prints are more than simply pretty pictures, for they are historic artifacts that are part of our past and that gives them extra intrinsic (as opposed to monetary) value.
So I hope that everyone who finds out that their antique prints have “only” decorative value, will learn to treasure them for what they are, decorative images from our past.