Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Originals and reproductions

At the Print Shop, we often get questions like, “Is this an original or just a print?” Of course, the answer is, “It is both, an original and a print.” As discussed in Part I of “What is a print?”, in the sense I am using the term, a print is a piece of paper on which a design has been imprinted from a matrix made of some selected medium, usually stone, wood, or metal. An original print is one printed from a matrix on which the design was created by hand. This contrasts with a reproduction where the design on the matrix was produced by some sort of photomechanical process or the print was made directly from digital information without an intervening matrix.

A photomechanical or process print is created from a matrix upon which the image has been photographically transferred from an original source. There is no direct hand work involved in creating the matrix and thus a photomechanical print is considered to be a reproduction rather than an original print. Photomechanical methods were developed in the late nineteenth century. A common characteristic of many photomechanical prints is their use of half tone screens which produce an image composed of many small dots. Photomechanical prints include line blocks, half tones, photogravures, photolithographs, and collotypes. Today many reproductions are created by a digital process that creates a giclée.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with a reproduction as such. The quality of a reproduction can be very good and the appearance sometimes almost indistinguishable from an original. Purely on visual grounds, a reproduction can be just as good as an original, and a good reproduction can thus be an affordable way for people to enjoy the appearance of an antique print without having to pay the price of one. A facsimile is a reproduction that is intended to be as close to the original as possible, done on the same scale and with the same appearance. Facsimiles can be particularly good for decoration or scholarly study. The most important thing about a reproduction, however, is that a prospective buyer knows that it is a reproduction and that the price is appropriate for a reproduction.

Value of reproductions

Reproductions do not have the same inherent value as originals and should not be sold for anything like the same price. An original print has value both because of its appearance and quality (which reproductions can replicate to some extent), and also as an historic artifact. Being hand-made, original prints are intimately connected with the printmakers, and being issued in a particular historic context, they have meaning as artifacts from our history. Prints had an impact in the time they were first published and as such are part of our past. Reproductions can echo that history, but they are not part of that history.

Also, reproductions are something that essentially can be duplicated, whereas originals have a unique identity. One can never recreate the exact same original, making an identical historic artifact, for even if one exactly duplicates the process, there will be a difference in the context in which the copy is made. The essence of a reproduction, however, is not the context in which it is produced, but how closely it copies the original. This can be duplicated over and over.

Consider, for instance, facsimiles of John James Audubon’s double elephant prints from his Birds of America. Since the 1970s, almost a dozen different series of full-size facsimiles have been produced. (Visit Ron Flynn’s excellent article on Audubon facsimiles to read more about these series) These prints were produced by different processes and generally the results are quite good. It can be difficult to tell a facsimile from an original if the print is in a frame (the watermark in the paper is about the only really fool-proof way to determine an original). As the original aquatints can be very expensive (a number sell for in the six figures) and as there is nothing else like them visually, it is terrific that these high-quality facsimiles are around for those who want the look without the cost.

However, there is the question of their value. Some of these facsimiles have been sold for very large prices and that, to my mind, is not a good thing. These are sometimes sold as “collectible” or “rare,” with the implication being that their value should be high. Does that make sense? I think not. The problem is that any reproduction can be redone with the same or better quality and the new reproduction will be just as good (or better) than the earlier one. The value of a reproduction doesn’t come from its being a historic artifact, but rather from how well it duplicates the appearance and quality of the original. Any reproduction should have the same value as any other reproduction of the same quality and closeness of appearance.

So, if you paid a lot for a particular facsimile because it is rare and well made, but then someone creates a new facsimile of the same quality but at lower price, there is nothing to sustain the value you paid for the older facsimile. New print making techniques (such as giclée) usually mean that new reproductions can be made of excellent quality but sold for a low price, so this is a big risk for anyone paying a high price for a reproduction, no matter how good.

What should you pay for a reproduction? There is a cost to make a good quality reproduction, especially for prints as large as the Audubon prints, and no publisher is going to bother making a series of reproductions unless he can make a profit above those costs. So, basically you should pay a price that includes a reasonable profit on top of production costs. This provides downside protection in case someone comes along with a much cheaper, but just as good quality reproduction, for while production costs might go down in the future, in this way you not are paying an inflated price that includes a “scarcity value” which just might disappear.

Reproductions, then, can be fine things to buy. They let more people have access to the wonderful images found in antique prints at prices they can afford. It is, however, important to know what it is you are buying and not to pay more than what the reproductions are worth.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

The care of art on paper

The following are the most important considerations in the preservation of art on paper.

  • Nothing acidic in contact with the artwork.
    The most common agent that causes the destruction of art on paper is acid. This can come from the use of either wood backing in a frame or wood-pulp mat board for the art piece. If the artwork has been in contact with such material in the past, it should be deacidified, as acid will likely have migrated from this material and currently be present in the artwork itself.
  • Matting material should be 100% cotton rag.
    Of the many types of mat board available, we recommend 100% cotton rag mat board for housing art on paper. The most deceptively named boards are some "acid-free" mat boards made from wood pulp. While the acid content of these boards has been reduced from that found in the raw pulp, it has not been eliminated. The buffering agents used on the surfaces are only effective against airborne compounds, and do not protect against heat and light activation of acidic elements remaining in the board. Short term, these are fine, but not for long term storage.
  • Hinges should be archival
    If hinges are used to attach the art work to mat board, it is important that these not have any acidic content and that the hinges be easily removable without damage to the art work.
  • Any storage container should either be acid-free or separated by a buffer from the artwork
    If the artwork is to be framed, nothing with acidic content should be in contact with the paper. (Click here for blog on proper framing of prints) If the artwork is to be kept in a portfolio or box, the print should be separated by a buffer from anything with acidic content.
  • The artwork should be kept away from other destructive factors
    The artwork should be protected from insects, spills of liquids, and sunlight. All these things can cause serious harm to the artwork.
  • Try to maintain a stable environment for your art work.
    Consistent 70 degrees Fahrenheit and 50% humidity are optimal. Some slow variation in these factors is acceptable over a period of months or years, but any sudden change can be harmful. It is advisable not to hang or store art work on a damp wall, a wall that has been recently plastered, over a working fireplace, or in any area subject to excessive sunlight, heat or dampness.
  • Handle with care!
    It is obvious, but still important to note that care should be taken in handling art on paper. Paper is easily torn, but dirty or oily hands can also damage a print. With careful and not too frequent handling, gloves are not necessary (in fact, gloves can cause damage by being less sensitive than bare hands), but hands should be clean before touching the paper. Housing the print in a mylar envelope can allow art to be examined while providing protection of the fragile paper

Friday, March 27, 2009

Documenting Commercial Prints

Though almost any conceptual bifurcation will inevitably have many exceptions, I think that prints can in a general way be divided into those that are “fine art” prints and those that are “commercial” prints. A fine art print, in this sense, is one where the “art” of the image—that is its appearance, quality, and manner of production—was the primary focus of the printmaker. The intent of a fine art printmaker is to produce a work of art. A commercial print, in contrast, is one where its content was the primary focus of the printmaker, not its aesthetics. While the aesthetics of a print is usually important to any printmaker, commercial prints are those that were issued first and foremost in order to serve a practical function, such as decoration, advertising, illustration or conveying information. As the intent of each type of print is distinct, so it makes sense that the manner in which they are documented will differ.

Usually, the most important aspect of a commercial print is its content and so the title is of primary importance in its documentation. A title can explain not only the subject matter but also often the intent of the printmaker in depicting the subject. An additional description of the imagery is also often important in documenting a commercial print, for this can further elucidate the subject matter and provide more information on the intended purpose of the print. Notes on variations between different examples of the same image—the appearance of a beard on a previously bare chin or the addition of a new bridge to an urban environment—are always of interest for commercial prints. Such variations do have significance for fine art prints, as these can show the progression of the artistic conception of the artist, but as the content is the message for a commercial print, a description of variations in the rendering of such prints is particularly important.

For a fine art print, the artist was the main and often only person involved in the production of the print, creating the design, working the matrix and often doing the printing as well. Commercial prints, in contrast, usually were produced by a team of printmakers, where the artist often was only the designer of the image. Once the design was created, it was either transferred or copied onto a matrix, where a craftsman—wood carver, engraver, or lithographer—would create the matrix so that the print could then be run off on a press by the printer. This whole process was usually overseen by a publisher, who among other things sometimes collaborated with the artist in determining the appearance of the design, who might call for revisions to the matrix, who decided on the format in which the print was issued, and who controlled the overall quality and appearance of the print. It was not just the artist, but all members of the printmaking team who are the printmakers of commercial prints.

Because a fine art print is the artistic expression of the printmaker, a fine art print which was copied from an image by another artist is said to “by” the printmaker “after” the original designer of the image. Thus a copy of a Jan van Huysum painting by mezzotinter Richard Earlom is said to be engraved by Earlom after Van Huysum. In these cases, the original art was created for the purposes of the original artist, and the print was created for other purposes, those of the printmaker. Thus the resulting print is essentially derivative or reproductive, a secondary image “after” the primary art work.

In contrast, for most commercial prints the original art work was designed specifically in order to lead to the production of the print. It was the print that was of primary importance, not the original art work. The secondary nature of most original renderings is demonstrated by the fact that in many cases the artist’s picture was destroyed in the making of the print or it was made only in an unfinished state, with, for instance, scribbled notes for the craftsmen and only partial coloring. The print was the raison d’etre for the artist’s creation and even while the artist usually did not place the image on the matrix, the print was intended to be the physical manifestation of his artwork. The craftsmen who formed the image onto the matrix and those who made the impressions were supposed to realize the design of the artist onto paper, not to add their own artistic input.

David Tatham wrote, in his Winslow Homer and the Pictorial Press, of the illustrations Homer provided for newspapers such as Harper’s Weekly, “It is inaccurate to describe them, as some museum and publications have done, as works ‘after’ Homer, for this description implies that an engraver adapted an image by Homer and in the process contributed something original to it….There is no reason to suppose that any of his engravers contributed anything of positive substance to any image he drew on the block.” (p. 15). While the technique of different engravers varied and so affected the final appearance of the illustrations, “these were minor variations in the execution of a drawing, and not interpretive or collaborative efforts.” Thus it is that we say these prints are “by” Winslow Homer, not “after” Winslow Homer. Similarly the aquatints by William Lizars or Robert Havell from John James Audubon’s Birds of America, should be said to be “by,” not “after,” Audubon, and likewise for other commercial prints.

Still, because the other members of the team of printmakers were crucial in the appearance and nature of a commercial print, it is important to identify these individuals where possible. The publisher of a commercial print often had the greatest impact after the artist on the nature of a commercial print, often determining the medium, size, style, quality and so forth. Thus identification of the publisher is always of significance for a commercial print. In some cases the publisher was even more important than the artist, with the latter simply being an employee whose identify is not even listed nor can ever be found. For the majority of the prints issued by Currier & Ives, and other popular print publishers of the nineteenth century, the images were drawn by staff artists who were rarely identified. These prints reflect the vision and intent of the publishing firms, not of the artists, and so they are identified simply as, e.g. Currier & Ives prints, with the artist not mentioned at all. This is much the same way that today many Christmas cards have no artist identified, instead being known simply as, e.g. a Hallmark card.

While the craftsmen who formed the image onto the printing matrix are sometimes not identified on commercial prints, where known, these individuals should be documented in any description of a commercial print. The wood carvers, lithographers, and engravers all had their own styles, so that even though they were supposed to simply copy the designer’s image onto the matrix, their craft had a great deal to do with the final appearance of the print. The process used—woodcut, wood engraving, intaglio, lithography—also had a lot to do with the final character of the print, as did the format in which the print was issued—as a broadside print, wall hanging, or illustration in newspaper, book or magazine. All these factors are crucial in how well a commercial print was able to achieve its intended purpose and so these are all facts which need to be documented and considered in the study of commercial prints.

What is a print? Part I

In a series of posts I will discuss the question of "What is a print?" This is about original, antique prints and these posts will talk about different types of prints and how they are made.

In the most general terms, a print is a piece of paper on which a design has been imprinted from a matrix made of some selected medium, usually stone, wood, or metal. In an original print the matrix is made by hand, not by a mechanical reproductive method. Any print issued prior to 1900 is considered an antique, though non-mechanically made prints published before World War II are sometimes considered to be antiques.

Prints fall into three general categories depending on their method of production: relief, intaglio, and planographic.

  • In a relief print the image is printed from a raised surface on the matrix, so that the printmaker creates the matrix by cutting away that part which he does not want to show in the image. To create a relief print the ink is applied to the raised surface of the matrix, which is then pressed onto a sheet of paper. Examples of relief prints are woodcuts and wood engravings.
  • In an intaglio print the image is printed from a recessed design in the matrix, so that the printmaker creates the matrix by cutting into it the design he wishes to imprint on the paper. To create an intaglio print the ink is pressed into the design cut in the matrix, the surface is wiped, and the ink is then transferred to the paper under pressure. This process creates the platemark which is the hallmark of an intaglio print. Examples of intaglio prints include engravings, etchings, aquatints, and mezzotints.
  • In a planographic print the image is printed from a flat matrix, where the image was created on the surface by use of a grease crayon or with a greasy ink. To create a planographic print, water (which is repulsed by the greasy image) is washed onto the surface, and then ink (which is held by the greasy image) is applied to the surface. A press is then used to transfer the image to the paper. Lithographs are planographic prints.

More information can be found on The Philadelphia Print Shop on-line reference library.

Print Journals

There are quite a number of excellent academic journals on maps, but few journals at all that primarily cover antique prints. Here is a list of those currently being published.

  • Imprint
    Imprint is a biannual journal issued by the American Historical Print Collectors Society. To say simply that it is the best journal for those interested in American historical prints does not really convey how good it is. The production quality of Imprint is first rate, with full color, and the articles are always of interest, ranging from shorter notices on print topics, collections and institutions to longer articles that are well-researched and scholarly. Also included are book reviews of newly published print references. A subscription to Imprint is reason enough to join the AHPCS. An index of back issues (which are available from the AHPCS) can be found on the AHPCS web site.

  • Print Quarterly.
    The Print Quarterly is an academic journal issued quarterly in England. Well illustrated (though in black & white only), each issue contains a number of scholarly articles, followed by a few "Shorter Notices," notes, and catalogue and book reviews. The focus of the journal is mostly on fine art prints, with relatively little attention paid to American prints. Subscriptions are available in the United States and more information can be found on the Print Quarterly web site.

  • Journal of the Print World
    The Journal of the Print World is a tabloid, newspaper-style periodical issued quarterly out of New Hampshire. For over three decades the Journal has provided wide coverage of prints, with articles on exhibitions, auctions, artists, and reference books. There is information on European topics, but the focus tends to be on American prints. Both fine art and historical prints, modern and antique, are well covered. Most American print dealers, print fairs, auctions, and exhibitions are advertised in the Journal, so it is an excellent way to keep up on the world of prints, as can be seen on the Journal's web site.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Antique Prints on the Web: Blogs

One of the subjects which I will post about on a regular basis is that of web sites that have relevance to antique prints. As the Antique Prints Blog is a brand new blog specifically on that topic, I will first look at blogs where antique prints are a primary theme. I am, however, not going to cover commercial blogs. Many blogs related to antique prints are simply vehicles to post listings of items for sale or special sales events. There is nothing wrong with such blogs, of course, but as stated in my first post, this blog “is intended to be a non-commercial blog for the education and enjoyment of anyone interested in antique prints.” I will not hesitate to include links to the Philadelphia Print Shop web site, and of course I hope that my business will benefit from its existence, but the rule I will follow is for this blog to be primarily non-commercial. Thus I am going to discuss only blogs that I consider also to be primarily non-commercial.

In January of this year, the Printcollector started a blog entitled Collecting Antique Prints and Maps. His/her intent for the blog states that it was designed to be “for the benefit of antique, rare, scarce prints and maps collectors.” This blog would thus be very similar in intent and subject to the Antique Prints Blog and so it is worth keeping an eye on it. However, the only post so far is the initial, introductory one from January 5, 2009.

A much more active blog is Neil Street’s First Printing: The Antique Maps and Antique Prints Blog which he has maintained since the end of 2005. Neil regularly makes posts which contain listings of meetings, exhibitions and other events related to antique maps and prints. He also lists map and print auctions and antiquarian bookfairs. These lists cover both North America and Europe. This is an excellent blog to follow if interested in these topics, as Neil keeps the list current and impressively comprehensive. (Anyone who is organizing such events should make sure to send him a notice).

John Ptak has a very interesting blog, The History of Ideas--unusual connections in the history of science, math, art and social history John’s business involves books, pamphlets, manuscripts and prints in the sciences and the history of science, and his blog seems to cover the same territory. Scattered in among his 562 posts (as of today) are many interesting essays that relate to antique prints (and maps). These are not that easy to find, but he does include a partial index. A fun and interesting blog to explore.

While maps are only a secondary theme for this blog, I want to mention the excellent Map the Universe, a blog about antique map collecting. Begun in July 2006, this regularly updated blog contains posts on every imaginable topic of interest to those who collect antique maps. I highly recommend this blog and hope that I can make Antique Prints Blog close to as good as Map the Universe.

Finally, there is Marty Weil’s first-class blog Ephemera, exploring the world of old paper, which recently celebrated its third anniversary. Ephemera is a closely related or indeed overlapping topic with antique prints, so this blog is worth exploring.

Beyond this I found only a number of blog posts on particular topics, and the aforementioned commercial blogs. The amount of interesting material on most of the blogs listed above has inspired me to make a firm commitment to keep posting on a regular basis so that this blog will one day achieve a comparable quality. Keep tuned….

Scarcity of antique prints

We get a lot of questions and comments concerning the scarcity of particular prints. This is often spurred by the fact that someone has done a search for a print on the internet and did not find it listed anywhere. This tends to lead to a conclusion that the print must be extremely rare and therefore it must also be valuable.

So how can you tell how rare a particular print is? My answer is that it is usually difficult to tell other than by general experience. At the Print Shop we see hundreds of new prints each month, we view print lists on the web and in auction and dealer catalogues, we visit print exhibitions and collections around the country, and we look at every new print reference book or journal that comes out. Over a quarter of a century of this has given us a lot of experience with what prints are “out there,” and this in turn gives us a general sense of when a particular print or type of print is fairly common or quite scarce. However, most people don’t have the length and breath of our experience and unfortunately each other method for judging how rare a print is has problems.

Using Google to search the internet for a print is probably the most common way that people try to tell if a print is particularly rare. There is an amazing amount of information on prints on the web, including dealer inventory, eBay listings, institutional holdings, and so forth. If a particular print shows up regularly on the web, in dealer stock or on eBay for instance, this is probably a good indication that the print is not particularly rare. However, the absence of a print from the web does not necessarily indicate it is rare. What prints are listed on the internet is simply a matter what prints someone has put on the web, not what prints are “out there” in the real world. There has a been a lot of effort by many people and institutions to put up sites with listings of different kinds of prints (and future postings will document many of these), but there are also many fine collections in existence and research on prints done where the information about those prints has not been put up on the web.

So, for instance, almost every antique print of Niagara Falls has been posted to the Impressions of Niagara web site of the Castellani Art Museum, but views of Chicago are hardly represented on the web at all. The absence of any hits on Google for a particular Chicago print is not necessarily an indication of its scarcity so much as a reflection of the fact hardly anyone has posted information on this topic. Likewise, a print that shows up all the time on eBay can be assumed to be fairly common, but there are thousands of prints—some common and some not—that have never been listed on eBay. It is just as likely they have not been listed because sellers do not think the prints will sell for very much rather than the fact that they are rare. The number of prints appearing on web sites and being listed on eBay and similar sites is growing all the time, but mere absence of a particular print from the internet does not allow one to conclude the print itself is rare.

Likewise with listings of prints (either on the web or in print) by dealers and auction houses. Dealers and auction houses will list only those prints that they think will sell for a reasonable amount. Many prints are too obscure, too damaged, too insignificant, or are just on unpopular subjects and these will tend not to appear in dealer or auction house listings. The absence of a particular print from such listings thus can mean that it is not very valuable, rather than that it is particularly scarce. As an example, religious prints as a whole tend not to sell that well (look for a future post on this topic) so many never get listed or are listed only as part of a “group of religious prints.”

Similarly, lists of institutional holdings on the web or in books are not usually very good guides to the scarcity of a print. More and more institutions are putting their collections on-line (another future post subject), and many have catalogues listing their prints, but what prints are so listed depends on a number of factors that makes these lists imperfect indicators of overall scarcity. Not all institutions have the funds or inclination to publish lists of their holdings. Not all subjects nor types of prints are held in institutions; what collections there are is usually a matter of the history of a particular institution or the particular interest of a major donor or collector. A reasonably common print might appear in only a few cases or not at all in institutions listings simply because few institutions have it in their collection.

On the other hand, the appearance of a print in institutional listings does not mean it is not very rare. Many collections were put together diligently over many years so that very rare prints often appear in a number of institutions. Historical prints have been treasured and collected since the eighteenth century, particularly in places like Boston, New York and Philadelphia, and many of the rarest ones have ended up in institutions. These prints are often of considerable interest and value, and so they are quite likely to have been documented by several of those institutions. Thus it is that an extremely rare print may appear in a number of institutional listings, in contrast to the common prints which appear in none.

Print reference books or articles can be fairly accurate indicators of scarcity, especially if there is a good “standard” reference on the type of print in question. There are many types of prints for which there is no good reference, but more and more excellent print references are appearing on the web and in print in recent years (another future post topic). The lack of mention of a particular print in a well researched, relevant reference listing is probably a good indication that the print is scarce. The recently issued book Panorama of Pittsburgh lists every known, printed image of the city from the nineteenth century. This list was based on an assiduous search of institutions and collections around the country, together with an extensive local search by Pittsburgh scholars and collectors. Thus is would be a fair assumption that a print of Pittsburgh from the nineteenth century not listing in Panorama would be quite rare. (The Print Shop has posted an on-line listing of any newly discovered, “previously unrecorded” prints of Pittsburgh.)

Likewise, Currier & Ives prints have been seriously documented ever since the early twentieth century, most importantly in Frederic A. Conningham’s checklist first published in 1949 and the Gale Research two-volume checklist from 1984. Because these prints are so widely popular and have been studied by numerous scholars over many years, one can conclude that any Currier & Ives print not previously recorded is indeed very rare. (The AHPCS web site will soon be posting a listing of all previously unrecorded Currier & Ives prints.)

So, other than through the use of a comprehensive reference book, is it possible to figure out how rare a print is? The answer is sometimes yes. Probably the best way to start is to consult with interested persons who have wide experience. Many dealers, auctioneers, scholars and curators will have had extensive experience with different types of prints and they often will have a good sense of whether a print is fairly common or quite scarce. There are also some clues that one can get from a study of the prints themselves.

  • Is the subject popular or not? A print with a popular subject is more likely to be listed for sale or in a reference book, so the absence of a listing of such a print is an indication of scarcity. An unpopular print, though, might not be listed anywhere simply because it is unpopular.
  • How many would have been produced? There are very few records that tell us how many impressions of a particular print were produced, but if you think about the intended market for a print, you can often get an idea of whether the run was tiny or huge. Currier & Ives prints were intended to be sold cheaply to as many people around the country as possible, and so they would rarely issue a print in a small run; most of their prints were printed in the many thousands. In contrast, any nineteenth century print of a local church was probably issued in a small number intended just for the members of its congregation. If a print started off as part of a very small run, it will undoubtedly be rare today and a print from a huge run is more likely to be not so rare, even if not many have been found listed anywhere.
  • What process was used to make the print? The answer to this query helps to answer the previous question. The nature of the printing process used for a woodcut or copper engraving physically limited the number of possible impressions to a fairly small number, whereas a steel-faced wood engraving, steel engraving or lithograph could be run off in huge numbers.
  • In what format was the print issued? If a print was separately issued as a single sheet of paper, the odds of it surviving over the years is quite small. As most framing up until the last twenty years or so was not done archivally, a separately issued print put into a frame would be subject to stains, acid-burns, sunlight bleaching, and so forth, so that many framed prints would not have survived over time. And, of course, if a print was not framed but kept as a separate sheet of paper, it would be subject to tearing or otherwise being destroyed in handling or non-archival storage. In contrast, a print issued bound into a book or in a portfolio was better protected and so would have a higher chance of survival.
  • What size is the print? Larger prints are much more subject to storage and handling problems and so have a lower survival rate than small prints.
  • How “special” was the print when issued? A print that was considered to be of particular value when issued would tend to have been treated with greater care and so would be more likely to survive reasonably well. A print that was just an cheap, ephemeral object when issued—things like small popular prints, advertising posters, tickets, illustrated stationary—would frequently either have been stuck on the wall without great care or used and then tossed out. Such prints were often issued in large numbers, but very few were treated with the care necessary for them to survive over the years.

One final thought on the subject of print scarcity: does scarcity increase value? In a general sense the answer is “of course.” Value comes from the interplay of supply and demand. If supply is limited, this drives up the price. All things being equal, a rarer print will generally sell for more than a similar one that is more common. On the other hand, scarcity really has relatively little to do with establishing the value of most prints. Yes, a scarce print is worth more than a similar common print, but this is only relative to its intrinsic value, which is driven more by demand than by supply. If there is little or no demand, a unique example of a print could have almost no value. A print of an obscure individual by a bad artist produced in a crude manner will have relatively little value even if only one example exists. On the other hand, a fairly common print can still have significant value. For instance, Currier & Ives’ series of American Homestead prints are more common than many of their other American scenes, but these prints are also among the most beloved of the firm’s output. Indeed, it was the popularity of this series at the time they were produced that is the main reason they are more common today; in response to demand, Currier & Ives issued these prints in large runs over many years. Their continued popularity today means that their value is relatively high even though they are more common than many lower valued prints.

American Historical Print Collectors Society

This post concerns an organization which anyone interested in the subject of this blog should be a member of, viz. the American Historical Print Collectors Society (AHPCS). The AHPCS is a group of collectors, dealers, academics, and institutional members who share an interest in historical American prints that are 100 years old or more. The society is dedicated to encouraging the collection, preservation, study and exhibition of such prints.

The AHPCS was founded in 1975 and currently has over 450 members. Members are able to share their interests with others at occasional events and at an annual meeting held in different cities around the country. While these events can be fun and educational, membership in the AHPCS is very worthwhile even for someone who cannot attend the events because of the excellent publications produced by the society. A quarterly newsletter contains short articles and lists of events and such, and each member receives a yearly membership directory. The crowning jewel of the AHPCS, however, is the biannual magazine Imprint, a scholarly journal which contains excellent articles on a wide variety of topics, as well as book reviews on print references.

The AHPCS would like its membership to grow, and certainly anyone interested in antique prints will get great value from a membership. I strongly encourage everyone who is not already a member to sign up. You can find out more about the AHPCS on their web site at www.ahpcs.org. Sign up now and you can attend the next annual meeting, which will be held in Portland, Oregon, from May 14 to 16. I plan to attend and I hope I'll see you there.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Antiques Prints Blog

I am starting this blog as a place where I can share news and ideas about a subject that provides me with both an occupation and an avocation, and as a forum for those interested in antique prints. The subjects will be somewhat arbitrary, inspired by experiences I have, new prints that come our way, questions we receive from the public, or new books I read. I will also post information on current events and books related to antique prints. The opinions expressed in the blog will be mine and should not be taken as reflecting official positions by the Philadelphia Print Shop nor any organization I am a member of. This is intended to be a non-commercial blog for the education and enjoyment of anyone interested in antique prints.

The theme of the blog is “antique prints,” and by that I mean to focus on original prints from the seventeenth to early twentieth century. I am using “original print” in the sense described in the Print Shop's on-line reference library as a print where the matrix was produced by hand, as opposed to by some photomechanical process. While I will not rule out any topics within this broad spectrum of prints, I will focus on historical prints from the eighteenth and nineteenth century, and more often than not on American subjects. The topic of antique maps might also appear from time to time. The subjects of the blog will reflect my personal biases, but if a reader would like me to post on a particular subject, I will certainly consider any suggestions.

So why start such a blog? I have a professional and personal desire to spark interest in and spread knowledge of antique prints, and in today’s world a blog seems to be an efficient way to do this. I have reasonable credentials to write a blog on antique prints, as I have been a print seller and researcher for over 25 years, and I have written and lectured extensively on the subject. Also, at the Philadelphia Print Shop I come into constant contact with a wide variety of different types of prints, people with extensive knowledge and different ideas, and much research from books and magazines, and so I am well positioned to be able to share this experience. Finally, I going to maintain this blog because I love what I do and it is fun to share with those who share my enthusiasms. I hope this blog will be interesting and enjoyable for its readers.

Among the topics I plan to include in the blog are

  • Thoughts on print subjects that interest me
  • Descriptions of unusual prints we come across
  • Answers to questions we are asked by clients and the general public through our web site
  • Announcements and a listing of print events
  • Announcements and comments on new print reference books & articles
  • Profiles on important print collections in North America
  • Anything else print related I think interesting (please send suggestions!)

I will keep the blog as up-to-date as possible, with a minimum of a new post a week. Comments on the posts are welcome, though I will require a reasonable level civility and profanity will not be allowed. Please remember that this is a web blog, not an academic tome, and so there will inevitably be mistakes, conceptual and grammatical. In order to keep the posts coming on a regular basis, I cannot check and recheck everything I write. I will try to be as accurate as possible, but corrections are always welcome. Finally, I encourage readers to send suggestions for topics, send me questions I can answer on the blog, and keep me informed on new articles & books and forthcoming print events. You can email me at philaprint@philaprintshop.com