Friday, July 3, 2009

A PRINT BUYER’S GUIDE: Part 2: Where to buy

In the last blog I discussed the criteria a buyer should apply when considering purchasing a print. Today I will look at the advantages and disadvantages of different sources from which one can buy prints. It is pretty obvious that I have stake in promoting the idea of purchasing from print dealers, as that is my business, but I will try to be as unbiased as possible in this discussion.


Auctions can be a rich source for finding antique prints. Most general auctions contain a few antique prints and maps and there are also regular specialty print/map auctions. It is well worth considering this source when looking for an antique print.

There are a couple of advantages that can come with buying at auction. First, you get the material “fresh” on the market, so that you have an equal chance to buy the print as any other buyer. Sometimes the “best” prints are sold quietly to a special client of a dealer, but at auction, all bidders are equal. The other main advantage is that you can sometimes get a print for well under market value. If there is no one else at the auction interested in the print, or if no one else there realizes its significance, you can get a real great price.

We do not buy much of our stock at auction (for many of the reasons that I’ll discuss following), but we have over the years found some real “steals” at auction. Generally we do best when we know how important a print or map is and no one else bidding does. In fact, auction is the way we get some of our best deals, for if someone brings us a print to purchase privately, we feel an obligation to pay the seller a fair wholesale price, but there is no such obligation at auction. As long as the auction house is willing to accept our bid, even if the bid is ridiculously low, that is part of the risk/reward calculus the seller accepts when putting something up at auction.

However, there are a number of serious disadvantages to buying at auction as well. One problem is that the selection of items that comes up at auction is very limited. Auction houses do not go out to try to get a variety of all sorts of prints; they sell only what is brought to them. If you are looking for a particular type of print, you might not come across anything appropriate even if you look in a large number of auctions. Of course, if all you want is some print or other—-as long as it appeals to you—-then you would probably find something if you check out a reasonable number of auctions. However, if you are building a collection or are looking for, say, a shell print of a certain size, you could go years without finding the right thing at an auction.

A second issue is that for auctions, the phrase “Caveat Emptor” should be kept firmly in mind. Almost all auctions sell their items “as is.” This means that the auction will often not warrant that the print is old, genuine, that it is a particular edition, nor that it is in reasonable shape. A framed print can look great hanging in the auction house, but once you get it home, you can find it is really damaged, that it is a much later edition than you thought, or that it is an outright fake. There is usually no recourse. As long as you either are willing to take the risk or you have enough experience to know exactly what you are getting, this isn’t a big deal, but never bid at auction without keeping this caveat in mind.

The final issue about auctions is that while you can sometimes get a print for a really good price, you also can pay more than you would pay from a retail shop. Even if you are immune to “auction fever” (where you get carried away in bidding and end up paying far more than you intended), unless you know what a print should sell for and set yourself a firm limit, you can end up paying over retail at auction. If two people are bidding on a print, neither of who knows the fair value of the print, the hammer price can go well beyond what it should. Just because there was an underbidder, someone who bid almost as much as you, doesn't mean that you bought the item at a good price.

A further factor in the cost of prints purchased at auction is the premium charged by auction houses. This is a surcharge the auction house charges you above what you bid. If the buyer’s premium is, say, 20%, then your bid of $200 will end up costing you $240. It can be deceptive to think you are only paying your bid price, but you should always keep the premium in mind. It used to be that most buyer’s premiums were about 10%, so the difference between bid and price paid was not huge, but now most premiums are at least 20% and many are now 25%! That makes a serious difference and it is all too easy to forget this surcharge when bidding.

So, in conclusion, my advice respecting auctions is that anyone wanting to purchase prints should consider looking at auctions, but only if you prepare yourself in a couple of ways. First, educate yourself so that you can recognize exactly what it is you are bidding for in terms of authenticity, significance and condition. Then you also need to figure out what a fair price to pay is for the item, factor in the premium, and stick to the bid you decide on. Of course, if you are not paying a lot and are willing to risk the money on something that is not what you thought it was, you don’t need to do this, but otherwise, take the time to prepare yourself before bidding.


Ebay is, of course, an auction, so many of the comments above apply to it. However, I think it is worth making a few other observations that apply more specifically to ebay. In a way, ebay reflects both the best and the worst of auctions. Everyday, thousands of prints of all sorts are sold on ebay, so you can certainly find them. However, it takes a lot of work to try to find just what you are looking for and this not only can be frustrating, but you cannot be sure of success. Furthermore, prints on ebay are often miss-identified, the photos can be terrible, and usually the seller doesn’t really know what he/she is selling.

If you browse through the list of prints on ebay, you will soon realize that the majority of the prints being sold are not antiques. For instance, there must be a “Currier & Ives” print sold every 15 minutes or so on ebay, but the majority of these are reproductions. Sometimes an ebay seller will guarantee the item, but not always. An advantage to ebay is that there is no buyer’s premium and sometimes prices can be low. Still, other times the prices paid are fairly strong and like at any auction, the bids can even go over retail

The main advantages of ebay are that there are a huge number of items and sometimes things sell for well under their market value. The main disadvantages are that you cannot examine the items in person, it can be hard to find exactly what you are looking for, and there are many sellers who do not really know what they are selling, not to mention the sellers who are dishonest. My advice is similar to that for regular auctions, but with an emphasis on how important it is to educate yourself so that you can be sure you know what you are bidding on.

Note that ebay has a print buying guide page which it is worth checking out if you want to go this route.

Flea markets, thrift shops, etc.

There are lots of markets which sell mostly “low end” items, and you can often find prints there. Flea markets, thrift and consignment shops, sidewalk sales, and the like. These can be a good place to look for prints, for sometimes you can find a “treasure” in among the “trash.” It can be a lot of fun to go out to garage sales or stop by a flea market and you can sometimes find nice prints this way.

There are two main problems with buying prints from these sources. The first is that the seller almost never knows exactly what it is that is being sold and so it is very important to keep “caveat emptor” in mind. There is never a guarantee and so you might find you bought a reproduction instead of the “treasure” you thought it was. And like at auction, there can be hidden problems which you don’t find about until you get the print home. Also, while prices are usually low, sometimes you can pay too much if both you and the seller think a print is something which it proves not to be.

The other problem is that the selection you will find is very limited. When we first went into business, I used to go out on many weekends to garage sales or I would stop at roadside flea markets to look for prints. However, I have found over the years that it is only in about 1 in 10 times (if that) that I will find anything worth buying, so now I go to sales like this only when it is a nice day and I want to enjoy the experience, never simply in the hopes of finding good prints.

My advice here is just that. If you enjoy this sort of thing, it can be a lot of fun to hunt for good prints. And there some large “flea markets” (like Rennigers or Brimfield) where there are so many dealers that you have a reasonable chance of finding something of interest. But, either make sure that you buy only what you know is what you want and and at a price you know is fair, or pay only so much as you are willing to find out was wasted on a purchase you made a mistake on.


Like the others sources, buying from dealers has both its advantages and disadvantages. The one thing that most people think of as a negative is price. Generally, unless the dealer makes a mistake, you are not going to find any “deals.” A knowledgeable and honest dealer will put a fair market price on prints. As discussed in my previous post, there is top-end market and lower-end market, but when you buy from a dealer you expect to pay market price. The other sources give you at least the possibility of buying something at a “deal” and that can be very appealing. It isn’t that you pay too much from dealers, but that you can sometimes do “better” in terms of price from the other sources.

However, there are a good number of advantages which balance this out. The first thing is that a dealer should know what is being sold and so you can have confidence that you are getting what you think you are buying. Not only can you be more confident simply because of the knowledge of the dealer, but you have further confidence because most dealers will guarantee what they sell. Given the number of fakes or reproductions of prints, this is an important point. Furthermore, a good dealer will tell you what, if anything, is wrong with the print and most will sell only prints in good condition. It might seem more expensive to pay $175 for that Currier & Ives print than the $50 you paid for the same print at auction, but when you realize you have to pay an extra $150 to $200 on top of the purchase price to get it conserved, you realize it wasn’t such a good deal.

Dealers also provide services you usually do not get from auctions and certainly not from flea markets and the like. You should be able to get a good selection of prints from a dealer, so you can find something that fits your needs and budget. One of the main services I think the Philadelphia Print Shop provides is to spend a lot of time and effort to put together as good an inventory of prints on all subjects and in all prices ranges as possible. This takes time and effort, but it means that we usually can find something a buyer will like that will suit his/her needs and will be in his/her budget.

A knowledgeable dealer will also provide you with information about the prints (date, author, significance, etc.) and will help explain why you might consider choosing one print over another. Also, a dealer is in the business of pricing prints, so as long as you are dealing with an honest dealer you can be assured you are paying a market price. It probably won’t be a “deal” but it should be fair.

One further thing to consider is that if you are interesting in buying a number of prints over the years, you you can build up relationships with a dealer that can be of benefit to you. A dealer will often give a good client a break here or there and will be on the look out for prints that the client is seeking. Also most dealers do not mind giving advice to a good client on the purchase of a print from some other source.

In sum

My basic advice is that a print buyer should consider all these sources, but being aware of the advantages and disadvantages of each. Auctions and low-end markets can be great places to buy, but make sure you go in well armed with knowledge of what you are doing. Dealers are also a great place to buy and you shouldn’t get hung up about paying a “market” price, for you usually get what you pay for. The important thing is to end up with a print that fits your needs and is what you think it is, for from such prints you will derive long term enjoyment and value.

1 comment:

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