Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Collection themes

In my blog about what it is to collect, I talked about the importance of developing a theme or topic for a collection. As I noted, the theme of a collection is that characteristic which the prints share that turns the assemblage into a single entity, rather than simply a group of prints. Today I will discuss this topic a bit more in depth, considering some suggestions on how to pick a theme for your collection and a look at popular and overlooked themes.
A theme can consist of a single subject--such as views of Niagara Falls; a printmaker or group of printmakers--as in prints engraved by Philadelphia craftsmen or prints after Hogarth; a printmaking process--such as mezzotinting; or any other shared characteristic--such as newspaper bonus prints. A theme can be comprehensive for the chosen subject or limited to prints issued in a certain period, such as prints published before the nineteenth century. Pretty much any subject related to prints can be a theme; the important notion is that a theme limits the universe of prints to be collected; a theme is what ties the individual prints together into the united entity which is a collection.

The theme determines not only the nature of the resulting collection, but also the experience which the collector will have in putting together the collection. It is thus important that a potential collector spend some time thinking about what theme to choose. Following are a few basic considerations to keep in mind.

Most obviously, the theme should be something of interest to the collector. Much of the value of prints comes from their content and history, and unless a collector enjoys those things, he/she will not derive any of the enjoyment that can come with finding and owning objects in which one is interested. It really doesn’t make sense to collect something simply because it sounds impressive or because the value of the items (and thus of the collection) is high, for not only will you be missing out on an important component of collecting, but it is likely that you will not want to continue to collect over the years.

Besides this, there are some practical considerations to take into account in choosing a theme. You want a theme which will include enough prints so that you will be able to find prints to add, but not so broad that prints that fit come along all the time. If your theme is too narrow, then you will never find prints the acquire and that certainly isn’t much fun. On the other hand, part of the fun of collecting is that there is an element of the hunt, with its accompanying thrill of discovery, and of serendipity, with its resulting pleasures of surprise. If every time you go to an auction, walk into a gallery or browse a flea market you come across prints that fit your theme, I suspect it will soon become a bit boring.
Another important consideration is the cost of prints that fit your theme. You might find early Dutch world maps to be fascinating, and they can be found on the market, but these tend to be very expensive. If you decide to collect these and can spend only several hundred dollars or so a year, you will not find many such maps you can afford. It might be better to collect early Dutch maps of some other area less expensive, say of France, or to collect world maps from the nineteenth century. One trick is to pick an “obscure” or “overlooked” theme (cf. below), where the prints will not be so desirable or not as much collected, for then you are likely to be able to find more opportunities to purchase prints that fit your theme and have an affordable price.
The theme that a collector chooses is the foundation of the collection and so the collector should spend time in selecting the subject. The collector should always allow a bit of lee-way in the thematic criterion, and the theme can, of course, change over time. Also, the collection can be culled or expanded as the collector's interest changes.

Popular themes

For maps, the most typical theme is to collect maps of a particular place. This is an obvious theme if you are interested in a particular city, county, state, country, or continent, and such collections can be very interesting in showing the growth of knowledge of that place over time. This also allows you to collect maps from many different periods in a wide range of styles, sizes, and price ranges. This sort of collection can be particularly good if knowledge of the subject changes considerably over time (where new discoveries are shown on maps as time passes). It is important to note, however, that different places can be relatively more or less expensive, so that, for instance, maps of Texas will usually be two or three times as expensive as maps of Pennsylvania. In our experience, the most common of this type of collection are maps of the World, the United States, Texas, and maps showing California as an island.

Views are similarly collected mostly by place. Views of cities are very popular, with the larger cities both having more prints done of them and more people collecting them. Colleges and schools are also popular as subjects, though for most educational institutions not many prints were made of them. Some will collect types of views, be their vue d’optiques or the bird’s eye views of the nineteenth century.

For historical prints, the two most popular themes are those of a particular person or war. For the latter, prints of the American Revolution are always popular, with those of the Civil War coming in close behind. The other wars are less popular, but there still are many people who collect the French & Indian War, the Mexican War, the War of 1812, and to a lesser extent the Spanish American War. Presidential portraits are the most common type of collection of individuals, with Washington and Lincoln being by far the most common. Political prints are also popular, especially political cartoons and campaign prints.

Sporting prints are mostly used for decoration, but there are collectors of specific sports. Baseball, polo, and rowing are probably those we see most often. Likewise, natural history prints are less collected than purchased for the use of decoration, but people do collect prints of particular plants, say Fritillaria or Magnolia, and others seek prints of specific animals, say Beavers or Cardinals. It probably won’t be a surprise that the most popular animal themes are prints of particular species of dogs (the problem with the latter subject is that many times breeds have appeared only in modern times and even if not, the breeds often have changed their appearance considerably over time).

There are many collections where the theme is a particular maker. This can apply to those who collect maps by a particular cartographer (Mercator, Speed, Tanner), or those who collect prints by a noted naturalist (Audubon, Catesby, Redoute). The most common printmakers collected, however, are probably fine art artists, be they old master (Durer, Rubens) or modern (Benton, Pennell). Print publishers are also collected by many, with prints by Currier & Ives probably the most commonly collected of all antique prints.

Overlooked themes

The themes mentioned above can make great collections, but their popularity means both that you will be competing with more people to find these prints and that the prices of these prints are likely to be higher. If you are going to collect one of these themes, it can be a good idea to pick a less popular place (say a region of France), a more obscure person (say William H. Taft), or a less loved bird (say the Cat Bird). It can also make sense to pick a less common type of theme. As long as you find the theme to be of interest and there are a reasonable number of items that fit the bill, an obscure theme can give you all the pleasures of collecting without the stiff competition and high prices of the common themes.

For maps, you could seek maps with sailing ships in them, with different types of compass roses, or ones that show volcanoes, and there can be any number of other themes that could tie your collection together. We had a collector who collected prints that included the American Eagle, but only if it was not a standard ornithological print. The Eagle appears as symbol in many different prints and this was a collection we had a great time helping the client with. Another collector sought anything (prints or other antiques) that included a handshake and it was surprising how many prints you could find with a handshake once you started to look.

We have often suggested to people collect some of less popular printmakers. There are many, many Currier & Ives collectors, but very few who collect the hundreds of other American popular printmakers of the nineteenth century. You can put together a wonderful collection of both small and large folio prints for just a fraction of the cost of a similar collection of Currier & Ives prints, simply because less people collect them. Almost any Currier & Ives print you find will have a strong, market price on it, but you can still find bargains by many of the other important publishers such as Louis Prang, the Kelloggs, P.S. Duval and others.

There can be collections on almost any subject you can imagine and it can be fun to come up with your own, unusual theme. Now don’t get me wrong; I think collecting Currier & Ives is a terrific thing, and one of the most important collections I ever worked on was a collection of views of Niagara Falls. My point is simply that if you are so inclined, you can often do much better by following the path less well traveled.


  1. Thank you for taking the time to help beginning collectors, as well as seasoned collectors. The posts on print buyers guide 1 & 2 and the theme posts are extremely helpful!

  2. If you have time: Are uncolored Currier & Ives prints uncommon? Thank You!

  3. Currier & Ives built their success on their hand-colored prints, but they still issued quite a number of uncolored ones. Sometimes these were small folio prints which were issued both colored and uncolored, where they could sell the uncolored ones for even less than the colored ones, making them more affordable. There were also certain subjects, just as political cartoons that were almost always issued uncolored. Most of their prints were colored, so uncolored C&I prints are less common, but I wouldn't say "uncommon." Hope that helps...

  4. Just curious I found a description of an old print I found behind a watercolor my uncle gave me. The description that I found on the internet is:
    C. Baker. [Niagara Falls]. New York: Edward Sintzenich, 1866. 14 3/4 x 25 7/8. Chromolithograph by P.S. Duval, Son & Co.. Seibel1: 31.
    The picture shown matchs my print exactly. Is it worth restoring. It has a few tears (slight) on the borders. Thanks.

    1. This is a lovely print and if you like it it would seem to make sense to restore it both so you can enjoy it and so that it will be preserved.