Identifying Valuable Prints

Dr. Lori shows you how the markings and signatures on a print can determine value.

by Dr. Lori Verderame

Do you own a print and don’t know what it is? You ask yourself, is it a charcoal drawing? ink? crayon? pencil? aquatint? watercolor? dry point? lithograph? serigraph? etching? engraving? monotype? collotype? poster? giclee? You don’t know, do you!

Read on so I can educate you about many different types of prints. First off, understand that prints can be very valuable. For instance, Currier & Ives lithograph sold for more than $76K, Pablo Picasso’s etching called The Frugal Repast sold for $123K, and a suite of lithographs by Toulouse Lautrec cost one buyer more than $882K.

When identifying a valuable print, look for a quality of impression and good condition of the paper.  Look at the paper and see if there is a watermark or distinguishing marking. The condition of the paper—tears, creases, stains—will also impact value.

If you have a print with a fraction marked on the bottom, that fraction represents the print’s number within the total print run. The numerator (top number in the fraction) tells you how early or late your print was pulled off the machine in the total print run. The denominator (bottom number in the fraction) tells you how many prints are included in the total print run or how many pulls of this same printed image occurred off the machine.

For example, Rembrandt van Rijn produced very small print runs. He typically produced prints in a run of no more than 12 impressions. There would be only 12 prints pulled off of one printers’ plate by Rembrandt. Today, print runs could be very large like Thomas Kinkade’s print runs which often swell to 5,000 impressions for the exact same image. Consider how the number of prints within the total print run impacts value of each print. If there are only 12 prints total, each print is very valuable. If there are 5,000 prints available in the total print run, not so much. If 4,999 of your friends have the same print as you do, that doesn’t do much for retaining high value.

The greater the number of prints available of the same image, the less valuable each print. Ideally, you want a low numbered print within a small print run like 1/12. This fraction marking would indicate you have the first print off the presses in a small print run of only 12 prints. This marking indicates that after 10 pulls, the artist and the printer agreed to destroy the original plate—like breaking the mold in sculpture—so no more prints are produced.

Damage can rob you of your print’s value so look at the area of the mat housed between the frame and the print (called the window). Does it look yellow or brown in color? Is most of the mat white or a different color than the window opening? Is the opening of the mat brown? When you look closely at the work, is the entire work on paper an overall brown color? If so, you have acid burning which is another term for significant damage. It can be reversed by a paper conservator but it isn’t cheap.

Get an online appraisal of your print from Dr. Lori.