Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Price ranges within series of prints

About two centuries ago, Thomas McKenney, the head of the United States Bureau of Indian Affairs, began to commission portraits of Native Americans both when they visited Washington D.C. and from artists “in the field.” McKenney realized that the “progress” of American culture threatened to wipe out the Indian cultures and he felt it was important to document the individuals and their culture for posterity.

When he left office in 1830, McKenney decided to try to produce a portfolio of lithographs based on the paintings he had gather for the government. He borrowed the paintings, had copies made, and then arranged for the production of the images as hand colored lithographs. After many years of battling poverty, politicians and printers, a portfolio, History of the Indian Tribes of North America, was published with 117 portraits and three scenes (actually 118 portrait prints were produced, but one was never included in the portfolio).

The portraits were all based on life paintings, showing many of the Native America chief from around the country, as well as some lesser individuals and women. These paintings provided an incredibly important documentation of Americans from the period, showing not only their faces, but also their dress and accouterments. Although McKenney was acutely aware that he was preserving a chapter in history, he could not have known that had he not undertaken this project, no record at all would remain, for in 1865, a fire at the Smithsonian destroyed almost all the original paintings from which the lithographs were drawn.

In any case, the prints from McKenney's portfolio all share the same history, they have the same relevance to our past, they are all the same size, and they were done by the same printers and lithographers. However, they sell for a wide range of prices. The most expensive prints in this series sell for over $3,000, whereas there are a number that are generally priced at $300 or less. We had a client in the shop the other day, and he was quite puzzled why there was such a range of prices (of course, he liked the more expensive ones and wanted them to be priced closer to the cost of the less expensive ones).

Thus it seemed that a blog explaining why there was such a variation in prices for the prints within one series would be useful, for this type of variation occurs with lots of different series of prints, not just the McKenney portraits. It happens with most natural history prints, and probably the extreme example are the first edition, Audubon bird prints. Some of the prints from that series sell for over $100,000, which others sell for just a few thousand dollars!

The bottom line is that there is often a variation in prices within a single series of prints based purely on desirability of the prints with the public. The prints in one series tend to have equal, general historic value and quality of production, but that doesn’t mean that the public has equal interest in all of them. Sometimes there is a variation in the specific historic import of a particular print (for instance, in general prints of extinct birds sell for more than the ones of birds which are still around today), sometimes there can be prints which have a particular appeal to the public (for instance, prints of dogs and cats tend to be more popular than prints of aardvarks and mice), but the most common reason is appearance.

Within most series, some of the prints are just more visually attractive than others. It can be size (the larger birds from the Audubon series sell for more than the smaller birds), it can be color (a print of a Cardinal will sell for more than a Wren), or it can just be the prettiness of one image compared to the other.

When a print dealer sets prices for the individual prints within a series, he/she will line them up in order of what he/she thinks how their appeal compares to the others. The print market will generally set the value range of a series (so, for instance, first edition Mark Catesby prints will sell for a range between about $7,000 and $700) and each dealer will then assign his/her prints to a place within that range. It is interesting that different dealers will assign different prices to prints depending on their reading of the market, though the ranges for most dealers will be consistent.

This, of course, makes total market sense as the more desirable prints can be sold for more, while one sometimes has to really cut prices on some of the less desirable prints in order to sell them at all. Typically, despite what can be a very large variation in prices, it is the more expensive prints which tend to sell more quickly than the less expensive ones. An interestingly phenomenon is that as dealers get different groups of prints from one series over time, they will sell the more expensive prints, while the lower end tend not to sell, resulting in many dealers have few of the “better” prints, but often multiple copies of the “lesser” prints.

So, how does this play out for the McKenney prints... The most important factor in desirability is the print's appearance. Some of the Indians are spectacular, with strong colors and fierce aspects, while others look like they are refugees from an immigrant camp. Looking at the two prints above, it is not hard to see which would sell for more, and would still be easier to sell at that higher price.

There are two other aspects to the visual premium besides just appearance. There are a few prints in the McKenney series which show full figured Indians, while most are just bust portraits. Being a full figure adds a price premium. Then there is the premium for having regalia or accessories which are of interest. There is only one of the figures with the archetypal full feathered headdress, only one figure with the classic bow & arrow, and a few with interesting weapons, robes or necklaces. All of these are worth more than they would have been without those accouterments.

Two other factors in the valuation of McKenney portraits relate to the history of the particular individual depicted. Some tribes are more desirable than others, for various reasons; there are only two portraits of the romantic Pawnee tribe, the Seminoles and Creeks remain of great interest in the American southeast, and the Iroquois appeal to many in the mid-Atlantic region. Other tribes have much more passed into the historical shadows, such as the Chippewa.

More important is who the individual is, for there are a number of portraits of Native Americans who are of particular interest or importance in American history. Portraits of Pocahontas, Red Jacket, McIntosh, and Black Hawk sell for more because of who they show, not particularly because of their appearance.

So at the top of the price list, one would find a magnificent portrait of a full-figured chief of great importance; that is Osceola. At the other end of the range you will find a rather pathetic portrait of an emaciated chief from a tribe which excites little interest about whom no one knows very much; that is Waemboeshkaa. These prints share a history and quality of production, but it is really not surprising that the one is worth over ten times the other. If you look at our listing of McKenney folio prints in price order, one can see all these factors played out; one might disagree on our particular ranking, but it should make sense.

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