Monday, July 19, 2010

Some thoughts on print values

Despite my intent, I have failed to make regular posts to this blog over the last couple of months. My excuse is that not only that I am in the midst of a move of my home and work from Philadelphia to Denver, but with the recent death of my mother, I have been swamped with personal matters. I have to confess that print thoughts have been pushed to the back of my mind since the end of May. I am finally beginning to get back on top of things and so plan (and hope) that I'll be able to make posts on a more regular basis here-on-in. In order to get at least one post done, I thought I'd just ramble on a bit about some thoughts I have an issue that comes up in queries about antique prints we get all the time: their value.

Through this blog, from our regular web site, and from our appearances on Antiques Roadshow, we get dozens of calls and emails each day with print questions. I would say that at least 80% of these have to do with the value of prints owned by the person contacting us. While I do understand this, it still is something that wears on us and is certainly less interesting than someone asking about the history of a map or the meaning of an obscure political cartoon. It is almost always the value of prints that people seem to want to know about.

One of the sources for this preoccupation with value is, of course, Antiques Roadshow, which Don and I have been appraisers on for more than a decade. Everyone who watches this program remembers the blockbuster items with huge prices. This seems to have raised everyone's expectations for the value of what they own. When we first went into business, if we offered $100 for a large historical engraving that we would sell for $250 after fixing up, the owner was usually surprised they could get that much. Today, if we offer $200 for the same print (which now after restoration would probably sell for about $500), they look at us like we are trying to cheat them. "I saw one just like this last week on Antiques Roadshow and it was valued at $3,000!

Of course the print on the program was quite different, but everyone's expectations have been raised and a lot of people tend to think their print is one of those very valuable ones. Soon I will make a post about the Roadshow stop in Billings, MT earlier this month and I will discuss the issue of values on Antiques Roadshow then, but suffice it to say here that this show has definitely raised everyone's awareness of the potential value of antiques of all sorts, including prints.

The thing we run up against vis-a-vis prices and antique prints is that relative to most types of antiques, prints and maps--for the most part--are not things that bring large prices. Most of the prints and maps we sell are priced between $300 and $1,500; this is no tiny amount, but relative to most antiques it is fairly low market. The "best" things we see tend to be in the $3,000 to $5,000 range and many very fine prints and maps we sell are in the mid-hundreds. This does not seem to impress many of the people focused on value of prints, so all the time I am finding I am being enthusiastic about a print someone asks me about where they are disappointed that their print is worth "only" $400. (Of course, this is when someone asks us about a print they own; if we are selling a print for $400, all of a sudden the question is raised about how it could be worth so much...)

Why is it that antique prints and maps tend to be in the lower range of prices in the antiques world? There are a number of reasons for this. First and foremost is that prints are, by their nature, multiples. For many antiques, each item is hand made, whereas prints and maps are usually printed off in relatively large numbers by a mechanical process. The matrix used to print the image is made by hand, but after that the process is less "hand-done." Many antique prints are very scarce now, but there still are usually a good number around.

The most desirable Currier & Ives print would just break six figures in price, but most of their prints are valued well under this despite their iconographic importance and the great demand for them. These prints were originally run off in the thousands and some of them are still relatively common, which keeps value of Currier & Ives prints reasonable even though they are as desirable antique prints as there are.

There are a number of other reasons that antique prints tend to be at the lower end of the value scale. One of these is the fact that to really appreciate the value of a print, you usually have to know the history of it. Prints tend not to "show" their value on the surface. Yes, the double elephant folio Audubon prints are big, bold, and beautifully made, which explains why they are some of the most expensive antique prints there are. However, compare these to the natural history prints by Mark Catesby. The Catesby prints are medium sized, somewhat crudely etched and drawn, and just don't "look" that valuable. To me, however, they are the most desirable of all American natural history prints. The same type of thing affects political cartoons, allegories, etc., where if you do not understand them, you cannot really appreciate their value.

This is one of the reasons why the publication of a book on a particular topic can be a big factor in helping to raise the awareness of the importance and thus value of certain prints and maps. For instance, we found that once we published Impressions of Niagara in 1993, the prices of some of the more important, though not necessarily visually impressive prints went up significantly. Our shop has always based our selling philosophy on educating our clients about the history of the prints in our inventory; this not only is something we believe in philosophically, but it also helps our business.

Another reason print prices tend to be fairly moderate is the fact that the vast majority of prints--both modern and antique--were issued specifically as decoration. Most people cannot afford original watercolors and oils for all their decorating needs and prints have always played the role of providing an affordable way for people to decorate their homes and work places. There is nothing at all wrong with this, as most people have a need for affordable decoration, but it does mean that the majority of prints are by nature going to have only "decorative" value.

The moderate value of prints is something I am perfectly happy with. It allows us to have a large inventory of material that I think is great but which is also affordable for most people Sure, I love to sell an expensive Audubon heron, Currier & Ives large folio winter scene or landmark American map, but it is more important to me that what we sell in any price range is appreciated for what is is. I think basically all antique prints and maps are great if appreciated for what they are and that is my main goal in this business, to facilitate that appreciation.

My main frustration when people ask about the value of their prints is when they are disappointed that their prints are not worth more. I guess it is human nature, but it is nice when people are turned on to their prints not because of their value, but because of their history.


  1. Thank you for this wonderful article. I'm one who buys old prints (or old anything) because I appreciate their beauty and history. And my appreciation increases the more I learn.

    I'm so sorry to hear about your mother, and can understand your need to take a break from blogging. But I'm glad that you're back! I look forward to your future posts.

  2. does any one know what a actual printing block of currier and ives is worth? it mesures like 6inx8inx1in and its a wooden block with a metal plate attached to it. and on the side it has the currier and ives ingraved to the wood.kinda like a stap or indention. oh and on the wood side it has a actual print of the plate.

  3. This is not an original Currier & Ives block. First, almost all of their prints are larger than that and secondly, they printed with lithographic stones, not metal plates. You have some form of reproduction that has only "decorative" value.