One of the most common questions we get at the Philadelphia Print Shop is how we price our prints. What makes one print worth, say, $1,200 and another $200? Where do we get the prices we put on the prints and maps for sale in our shop? This is, of course, one of the services I feel the Print Shop provides for those interested in antique prints, viz. putting fair values on prints and maps, and it is a legitimate question as to how we come up with our prices.
My partner and I spend a lot of time pricing prints. We try very hard to put fair prices on the items we sell. We would be bad businessmen if we sold prints too cheaply and we always have to keep in mind how much we will have to pay if we need to go out and replace a print being sold. On the other hand, we have been successful for over a quarter century in part because of our reputation of having fair prices on prints; we try just as hard not to over-price prints as we do in trying not to under-price them. It may be a surprise, but we do not price our prints and maps based on what we buy them for; we price them on what we feel is a fair price, irrespective of what we paid.
So how do we come up with our prices? One thing which makes it a bit difficult is that there are very few and very limited available price guides for antique prints. There are some Currier & Ives price guides, but frankly these are of relatively little use to us. There are probably about 8,000 different Currier & Ives prints and there is no way that any guide can give reasonable prices on that many. Also, condition and quality of color (and margins) are very important for pricing Currier & Ives prints, and the price guides don’t really take this into account. And besides this, prices on Currier & Ives prints change regularly, so as soon as a guide is printed, it tends to be out of date. The function which the price guides do serve is to give you the relative values of different Currier & Ives prints. If one print is valued at $100 and another $1,000, those prices themselves might not be accurate, but at least it gives you an idea that the latter is worth a lot more than the former.
There are data bases of print prices that appeared in dealer catalogues (Lawrence’s) and also for the prices that prints sold for at auction (Gordon’s). However, these data bases also have fairly limited use. One problem is that there is a considerable variation in the quality/condition of prints that are sold by dealers or that come up at auction. With some things (such as stamps) one can find values on those items in “mint“ condition, but other than for modern prints, one rarely comes across antique prints in “mint” condition. So almost every print sold or auctioned will have some condition problems and it is often difficult to figure out what problems these were so that the recorded price can be adjusted. Furthermore, like with the Currier & Ives price guides, because prices change all the time, many of the prices you do find will be considerably out of date.
The most serious problems with these price data bases, however, are the result of the combination of the vast universe of antique prints and the very limited market for these prints. There are a huge number of different prints that were published from the sixteenth through nineteenth centuries and many of these have been issued in a multitude of variations or editions. Only a small percentage of this enormous number of prints is sold any one year by a quite small number of prints dealers and in relatively few auctions with any significant number of prints. There are a lot of prints sold occasionally by book stores, antique shops, flea markets and many other outlets, but these are not sales that get recorded in the data banks. The data banks do and can only reflect a very small percentage of the universe of antique prints being sold at a small number of venues.
One of the consequences it that you will often either not find the print you are looking for in the data bases or you will find only the wrong edition or variant. Another issue is that the few records you do find are often based on sales at venues with quite different characters. There are auctions which tend to get very high prices and others where prints go cheaply. Likewise, there are some dealers who put prices on prints that are very “up market” and others who tend to price in order to move things as quickly as possible. Unless you know which is which for the auctions and dealers, the prices you do find in the data bases cannot be used to deduce what a “fair” price is. That is, what an antique print sells for cannot be assumed to be a “fair market price.”
This means that while one can occasionally find a good value from one of these data bases, this is the exception rather than the rule. The only prints and maps for which there are often reliable price records are those that are prominent enough that they come up at major auctions or from print dealers with some regularity and where their desirability and fame is enough to ensure a fair market price. This can include some of the large folio Currier & Ives prints and some of the most famous and desirable maps.
Finding fair market prices for maps is easier than for most non-map antique prints. There are two sources for prices on antique maps: the web site OldMaps.com and the Antique Map Price Record, which is available on CD from MapRecord Publications. There is a significantly smaller universe of antique maps than of general antique prints and there are a lot more antique map dealers than antique print dealers (at least who issue catalogues and put their items on the web), so these map price guides are significantly more useful that the print price guides or data bases.
The prints for which there are the most regular, reliable price records are the first edition Audubon prints from Birds of America. These have come up enough and in public enough auctions that there is something of an established price for these prints. There is always, of course, some variation in the pricing of Audubon prints, but there are enough public records of sales of these prints that it is fairly easy to determine a range of fair prices for them. In fact, really all the various Audubon prints (the Bien and octavo edition birds and all the quadruped prints) have a fairly good price track record. There are quite a number of dealers who sell Audubon prints of all sorts and they do come up at prominent auctions regularly. Ron Flynn keeps track of these sales and issues a regularly updated Audubon price guide.
Audubon prints and antique maps, with the good availability of price records for them, are the exception when it comes to antique prints. For most antique prints it is very difficult if not impossible to find a record of a fair market sale. So, again the question is, how do we at the Print Shop come up with our prices? There is no simple answer to this. As I noted above, we try very hard and spend a lot of effort to make our prices fair. In this and a series of blogs to come I will try to explain the reasoning that goes into how we price our prints.
One advantage we have is that our data base of prices is much larger than is available to the public. We have records of the prices at which we have sold prints for over a quarter a century. We have also not only collected catalogues by antique print dealers over the years, but my partner and I have been browsing shops, auctions, and every other venue for antique prints during this same time frame, filing away in our minds the prices we see. This means that for a very large selection of prints either we know what we sold it for previously or we know what someone else has asked for it.
This information isn’t enough by itself. As noted above, historic prices have two problems. First, prices change over time, and secondly, different dealers or auction houses have different pricing policies. We therefore have to adjust any historic price we know in order to take these factors into account. We obviously keep a sharp eye on the nature of the print market, so we have a good idea of how market prices are changing; this allows us to adjust a price from, say, 2005 to the current time. Also, we know which are the dealers or auction houses that tend to get “up market” prices and which are the dealers or auction houses where prints over sell for under what we consider a “fair market price.” (The issue of what defines a “fair market price” will be the subject of a future blog). So again we can adjust an historic price depending on the source for that price.
Of course, as should be clear from my comments above, there are many instances of prints where we cannot find any historic price record. What do we do in these cases? How can we come up with a fair market price for a print where there is no track record on what it has sold for? What we do is compare the print in question with other prints where we do have a good idea of a fair market price. Using a fairly complex calculus, we compare the importance, visual appeal, scarcity, desirability and so forth of the print to other prints which have similar importance, visual appeal, scarcity, desirability and so forth and then adjust the price higher or lower depending on the outcome of this calculus.
This may be a bit confusing in theory, but in a series of forthcoming blogs, I will discuss these various factors and how they affect value. Theses blogs will, I hope, give you not only an idea of how the Philadelphia Print Shop prices prints, but how you can do your own figuring of values.
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