Introduction to collecting prints

Everybody knows that a painting is unique, one-off work of art, but the idea of an 'original print' is somehow confusing, because the word 'print' has become associated with posters and other photographic reproductions.

Some of the most commonly asked questions are "What is a print?", "How are they made?", "How do I know it is original?", "What makes the price?" and "How do I care for my print?"

So, I thought I would create a section in our ever growing website to help collectors, especially those buying original prints for the first time, by answering these simple questions.


What is a print?

To put it simply, unlike a painting, prints are made by drawing not on paper or canvas, but on a surface such as stone or a metal plate, from which the image can then be printed a number of times. The surface is inked, a sheet of paper is then placed over it and the two are run through a press. The total number of prints that are pulled is decided by the artist and the publisher beforehand and this is called an edition. Each impression in the edition is signed and numbered by the artist. Once the edition is complete the original block, plate or stone is either defaced or destroyed so that no further impressions can be made.

Original prints are often referred to by the technique that was used to produce them, such as etching, engraving and lithograph. These are explained in the Printmaking Techniques section.


How are prints made?

Original prints are hand-made by the artist, often in collaboration with a master printmaker, who would help with the technical aspects of inking the surface and running it through a hand-operated press. The development of fine art printmaking in the 20th century is indebted to the skills of these master printmakers - such as Fernand Mourlot and Roger Lacouriere, who enabled artists such as Picasso, Chagall and Matisse to realise their visions for printmaking. However, these master craftsmen were constantly frustrated and delighted by the way these artists also broke centuries-old rules in their desire to find something new.

Publishers are also very important part of the history of printmaking and indeed, if it wasn't for the support of the great Parisian publisher Ambroise Vollard, the careers of many of the great artists of the 20th century, including Picasso, would not have taken off so quickly.

An artist often enters into an agreement with a publisher to produce an edition, with the publisher covering the costs of the materials and the workshop time, in return for the right to sell the prints. Between them, they will decide the size of the edition.

How do I know it is original?

One key resource for both dealers and collectors, is the catalogue raisonné, a complete catalogue of the artist's work. Most of the major artists of the Twentieth Century have a catalogue raisonné for each aspect of their artistic production - prints, drawings, paintings etc.

On the website, under each image, you will find a catalogue name and number. For example, for Warhol, you will find 'Feldman & Schellmann', the authors of the catalogue raisonné of Warhol's prints, and a number such as 'II.99' which refers to the specific image.

A catalogue raisonné will give the following information: title and date of the work, the technique, the type of paper used, the size of the paper, the edition number, where the print is signed and whether the signature is in pencil, pen etc., the name of the printer and the publisher.

If the print matches the catalogue raisonné in every detail, then there is a very good chance it is original. One then has to check the signature to make sure that it matches the artist's signature from that time (although handwriting does vary over time).

Sometimes, we are asked to provide a certificate of authenticity. Some works do come with such a certificate, for example ceramics by Jean Cocteau, sculptures by Rodin or unsigned paintings by Andy Warhol.  This certificate is typically issued by an independent body connected to the artist's estate and can only be provided if such an organisation exists. As not all artists have such authenticating bodies, we personally guarantee originality of all of the works in our gallery based on our knowledge, the work's provenance and verifying the works against the catalogues.

What makes the price?

The international art market decides the price, based on the principle of supply and demand. Original prints typically exist in multiples, which is the reason for the price difference between a painting and print by Picasso. In very simple terms, if a certain print is in demand and the supply is very low, the price will go up.

However, in the print market, price is very much driven by the condition. Works on paper are extremely delicate and can easily be damaged by mishandling, poor framing, exposure to strong light and, of course, the passage of time. Prints in perfect condition are more sought after by collectors and therefore command a much higher price in the marketplace.

Here are some tips as to what serious print collectors look for:

  • If the edge of the print is covered by a mount, take it out of the frame.  The mount might be hiding all sorts of condition problems: tears, stains, foxing (a fungus caused by damp condition) etc. Even if the printed image is in good condition, the condition of the paper around it is important to the market value.
  • Try not to buy prints that need restoration.  Cleaning will always take something away from a print, even if it is done by a professional restorer.
  • Check the colours - try to see if they are fresh and not faded.  Of course, you can't fight the passage of time and a print made a hundred years ago will not be as fresh today as it was when it had just been made.  However, you should check this against what you are being asked to pay.
  • Check the signature - even if you are not an expert on the artist's signature, look to see if it has been written with the confidence of someone writing their own name.  Check the numbering too to make sure someone hasn't tried to 'expand' the edition by changing the numbers (the catalogue raisonné will help you here).
  • If in doubt, do not buy it.  You can always call the gallery to discuss condition if you happen to buy from elsewhere.
  • Check that the print is framed using acid-free materials.  If not, you should change the frame immediately, as the acid will eat into the paper and stain it.  I would also advise you to have museum quality, ultra-violet light proof plexiglass fitted, as this will drastically reduce the fading inevitably caused by sunlight.  Please see our section on framing tips (below) for more information.

    An art dealer should make all of the above checks for you and disclose any problems, however not all dealers are so forthcoming.  The auction house principle of caveat emptor - buyer beware - does still apply, so please ask to look at your print thoroughly before buying.

    How do I care for my prints?

    • Make sure you frame your prints using acid free 'conservation' materials. Everyday card or paper is slightly acidic, which in time causes it to yellow. Almost all original prints are made on neutral-ph natural-fibre papers, which will stain if they come into contact with acidic-ph materials. To have your print framed by a professional conservation-framer will be expensive, but it is essential if you want your print to retain its value.
    • Sunlight will fade everything over a long course of time. However, you can protect your print and keep it in good condition for generations to come by hanging it away from strong direct or indirect light and using UF3 Plexiglas in place of regular glass to filter out the harmful UV rays that cause colours to fade.
    • Keep your print in stable environmental conditions. An excessively humid atmosphere (a bathroom or kitchen) may promote the growth of fungi, that will cause what is know as foxing: small brown spots, which will have to be cleaned by a restorer. An excessively dry or cold atmosphere may cause the paper to become brittle and crack. Please note that dust and pollution can also damage all works of art.
    • If your print is not framed, it should only be handled using cotton gloves as, no matter how clean your hands are, your skin contains natural oils, which can damage the paper and alter its ph-balance.
    • Loose prints should never be rolled for prolonged storage. They should be stored flat, between acid-free tissue paper or in special Solander Boxes. Prints should never be in direct contact with paper or paper products with an acidic-ph, such as cardboard or newsprint.
    • Prints rolled in tubes for mailing should be flattened as soon as possible. Screenprints should never be rolled, in any circumstance, as this will crack the ink.


    How to frame

    The frame is a key element in presenting a work of art.  Some artists design the frame themselves, however, the majority of the works of art we sell are  unframed.  Some works will live happily in a simple square plexi box, however others will need to be dressed up.  For example, photography is best presented in square section wood frames and the comic strips of Lichtenstein don’t need any frame except the protective UVA plexi box. 

    However, framing always comes down to one’s personal taste.  At Coskun we can advise you and help you to find the frame to suit your interior.


    Framing tips

    • Use conservation materials
    • Make sure the print is not in direct contact with glass or plexiglass
    • Check to see if your existing works are framed with conservation materials
    • Change the UVA glazing every five to ten years depending on location
    • Ask for sealed framing if living in countries with high humidity
    • Do not use any cleaning agents to clean the glass as this removes the UVA protection