In a series of earlier blogs, I have discussed what is involved in collecting antique prints. Today I will consider why one would want to collect antique prints. What is it that makes antique prints special and worth collectiong? Any collector has his or her own explanation of how he or she began to collect, and there are as many reasons for collecting as there are subjects depicted. There are, however, some general characteristics of antique prints which make them particularly splendid for collecting.
Images of birds, fruit and flowers, country and city scenes, wild animals, pretty women, handsome men, colorful Indians and so on have always been popular as decorative pieces for displaying in the home or work place. Many are drawn and produced with great artistic skill, and many are beautifully colored. The wide variety of types of prints produced means that whatever one's aesthetic taste, there are likely to be some antique prints which can be enjoyed as decorative art.
Antique prints are easy to display and to store. They come in all price ranges and for the most part are affordable and a very good value. Considering their age, scarcity, historical context, quality, and attractiveness, most antique print prices are surprisingly modest. For almost no other type of antique can one find objects as old, in as good condition, as attractive, and produced by artists as prominent for such moderate prices. And while it is not generally a good idea to consider antique prints primarily as investments (go to blog on this subject), they are antiques and will only become scarcer and more sought after as time goes on. It therefore seems likely that most antique prints will retain or increase their value over time, which cannot be said for most modern art pieces.
The most distinctive aspect of these prints is their historical character and content. The subjects represented in antique prints are almost infinitely varied. Many different types of prints are available to collect, whatever one’s interest. From birds of Southeast Asia to the Prussian military, from glass blowing to Abraham Lincoln, from European composers of the nineteenth century to women’s status in eighteenth century American society, there is a vast array of subject matter around which a collection can be built. In addition to this variety, antique prints provide us with a direct link to the past. As most antique prints depict topics contemporaneous with their publication, they portray these topics not as modern historians depict them, but from the vantage point of contemporary observers. A glorifying image of George Washington, a cutting satire of King George, a lovingly depicted home scene, all express the attitudes and understanding of the printmakers and buyers of their day, giving us a privileged look at the world through the eyes of the past.
While providing modern viewers with a window to the past, antique prints were also an integral part of their own time. Prints, with their multiple copies, usually had substantially more influence in their day than did contemporaneous drawings and paintings, all of which are unique pictures. Only a limited number of viewers could see a single painting or drawing, whereas most historical prints were disseminated extensively to the general public. Indeed, general dissemination was often the raison d’être of these prints. Like books, they would have had significant impact on their time. Some examples of this effect are obvious--ornithological prints studied by natural scientists in Europe and America, maps used by politicians, generals, and travelers, and Thomas Nast prints helping to bring down the Boss Tweed machine–-but all antique prints were to some extent influential in the overall social, political, and intellectual fabric of their time.
Antique prints are wonderful objects to collect. These precious artifacts of our past are historic, decorative, easy to handle, moderately priced, and of almost infinite variety. One can derive many years of pleasure, as well as build an interesting and valuable collection, through the pursuit of antique prints.