An Artistic Convergence: Käthe Kollwitz, Gerhart Hauptmann, and Emil Orlik

In her luminous essay Kollwitz Reconsidered, Elizabeth Prelinger describes the evolution of Käthe Kollwitz from aspiring painter to one of the greatest print makers of the twentieth century, a transformation that began through the influence of Karl Stauffer-Bern, with whom she studied at the private Zeichnen- und Malschule des Vereins der Kunstlerinnen in Berlin beginning in 1884. Stauffer-Bern introduced her to the work of his friend, Max Klinger, whose recently published cycle of etchings, A Life, had a profound impact on the young artist.

Kollwitz saw that the power of Klinger's black-and-white etchings captured the darker side of the human character and addressed the plight of the proletariat in a clear-minded and dispassionate way that seemed to her to transcend the emotional potential of painting. She was thoroughly familiar with the grinding existence of the working class from direct personal observations both as a young woman in her native Königsberg and as a first hand observer of her doctor-husband's patients on their visits to his office in the industrial district of Moritzburg in Berlin, where the young couple settled in 1891.

Inspired by the work of Max Klinger, Kollwitz decided to attempt a print cycle based on Germinal, the brutal, realistic novel by Emile Zola about a French miners' strike and its consequences. The book, already familiar to her, was the inspiration for a highly praised early drawing based on a scene from the novel and produced during an 1889 classroom exercise in Munich, where she was then studying.

In 1893, while Kollwitz was developing the idea of the Germinal cycle, she attended an early Berlin performance of Die Weber, the first and most famous play of Gerhart Hauptmann. Based on the 1844 uprising in Silesia by weavers protesting their displacement by mechanization and the resulting unemployment and destitution that they suffered, the play is an unsentimental and realistic presentation of their desperate act of defiance, which was brutally suppressed. Die Weber was an immediate public sensation but was briefly banned by the authorities, highly suspicious of its subversive overtones.

Kollwitz was profoundly affected by the play. She immediately cast the Germinal cycle aside and instead set to work on The Weavers' Rebellion, which ultimately appeared in 1898. The three etchings and three lithographs of Ein Weberaufstand, created over a four-year period, were first publicly shown at the Women Artists' exhibition at the Gurlitt Gallery and then at the Große Berliner Kunstausstellung in Berlin, where was nominated for a gold medal - an honor withheld by Kaiser Wilhelm II, who was nevertheless unable to deny the recognition due Kollwitz as the foremost woman in the world of German print making.

The enduring popularity of Die Weber also drew other talented artists into its orbit. One such was the great Austrian painter, print maker, graphic designer, and teacher Emil Orlik (1870 – 1932), born in Prague, who created the poster shown here in 1897. Upon seeing it, Hauptmann was so impressed that he invited Orlik to Berlin. Die Weber, Orlik's first theater poster, was the catalyst for his subsequent work in poster and set design. And from 1903 until his death, Orlik taught at the Arts and Crafts Academy in Berlin, nevertheless maintaining an astonishing output of work that remains highly prized by collectors to the present day. This rare poster, connecting as it does three such outsized talents, is a remarkable association piece.

Editions, States, and Restrikes


In current practice, an artist prints an edition consisting of a specified number of copies of an image from the block (wood engravings and woodcuts), the plate (etchings, drypoints, mezzotints and the like), the stone (lithographs), or the screen (serigraphs). The edition is thereby capped - or limited - by the stated number of copies. By custom, the artist may also print an additional number of proofs not exceeding ten per cent of the edition size without violating the limitation of the edition. When the maximum allowable number of prints has been reached, the original work - or matrix - will be destroyed or, more probably, cancelled either by defacing the image or by altering it in some distinctive way.

The artist may print the edition personally, in which case the edition printing can take years to complete because the artist need only produce as many copies as will satisfy immediate demand. This has obvious advantages because it not only minimizes the outlay for costly printing papers, but also eliminates the burden of unsold inventory while avoiding the risk of damage or degradation to unsold copies of the edition after the matrix has been permanently altered. However, it is often the case that far fewer than the stated number of prints have been made owing to lack of demand. It is often impossible to tell if this is the case, since many artists fail to keep accurate records, though this is not always so.

The artist may instead rely upon the services of a skilled fine arts printer as many famous artists including Rockwell Kent, John Sloan, Käthe Kollwitz and many others have done. The professional typically prints a series of trial proofs that aim to fulfill the artist's described intent, carefully adjusting his press and the ink as deemed necessary, and then submits these proofs to the artist for review. The artist may request additional proofs if it is deemed necessary, but ultimately selects the impression which best conforms to his original intent, marking it "BAT" ("Bon à tirer", or good to print). This becomes the reference master used by the printer to verify the consistency of prints in the edition. Over time, the collaboration between printer and artist often evolves to a level of mutual trust and understanding, and trial proofs may no longer be called for.

The size of the edition depends on both the demand for the artist's work and the durability of the matrix. The relationship between demand and edition size is directly proportional. Rockwell Kent, for example, could comfortably print lithographs in editions of 150 without fear of unsold inventory while others are more likely to print much smaller editions.

It is also current practice for the artist to sign and number each print in pencil outside of the image area, most frequently in the lower margin. Occasionally, the artist will also add his or her signature to the matrix at the time that it is created. In earlier days, prints signed by hand were far less commonplace; Whistler, for example, signed his work in the plate. Happily, artists are creatures of habit like the rest of us, so if you collect the work of a particular artist the likelihood is very good that most, if not all of his prints will all be signed in the same way.


A work of art on paper often evolves over time. The artist's initial delight with his work may give way to dissatisfaction as minor deficiencies become ever more annoying and ultimately rise to the level of gross offenses to his or her aesthetic sensibilities. Thus the artist will return to the matrix and re-work the offending parts of the image - adding or softening tone here, strengthening or weakening lines there, until the result is again satisfactory. In his catalog of the works of Käthe Kollwitz, August Klipstein notes fifteen different states for the woodcut titled "Hunger" (1925), catalog number 207. This is an extreme example, but serves to underscore Kollwitz's relentless quest for complete personal satisfaction with her work. This is one of the prices to be paid when the artist is her own harshest critic.

If a catalog raisonné has been published for the work of an artist whom you are collecting, you will have need to refer to it more frequently than you may imagine. It is the one reliable place to sort out the different states of a given print, and is often replete with useful contextual background for a particular work. So it is important to either own a personal copy or to have access to the catalog at your local public library (a more feasible option in larger cities or regions with an inter-library loan program). These books can be expensive because they are published in rather small editions aimed at universities, research libraries, museums, and galleries.

If you are looking for such a book, I heartily recommend that you begin and end your search on line at viaLibri aggregates almost all of the major antiquarian bookseller collaborative organizations worldwide, like AbeBooks, Alibris, and Biblio. It's fast and free, but  you can also subscribe to an array of research features more appropriate to the professional antiquarian book trade if you so choose.


A restrike is the term used to describe a print made using the original matrix (block, plate, screen, etc.) subsequent to, and unrelated to, the original publishing venture. This is typically a practice sanctioned by the artist or the artist's estate. Such subsequent prints are produced with the same care and craftsmanship as their predecessors. Our inventory includes a number of restrikes made from the original plates created by Käthe Kollwitz by Emil Richter Verlag, her first publisher, and by Alexander von der Becke & Son, which succeeded Richter as her publisher. Kollwitz etchings were printed into the late 1960s, and logically were commissioned to answer an unsatisfied demand for the artist's work. They have traditionally been issued with restraint in order to avoid undermining the market for her work. A signed Kollwitz print has more value than an unsigned Kollwitz print published during her lifetime, which in turn has more value than a print produced subsequent to her death. It is important to note, however, that there is often little qualitative difference in the prints produced across this spectrum save for the inevitable gradual degradation of the matrix caused by the effects of the printing process.

Common Sense For Print Collectors

For most of us, the principal constraint on our collector's impulse is the limited availability of funds sufficient to scratch the acquisitive itch. The behavior of the market for fine prints, governed as it is by so many variables, is difficult, if not impossible, to know absolutely. The best we can expect is to posess a fuzzy grasp of the current state of affairs which, hopefully, becomes clearer and sharper when brought to bear on the work of the artists that we collect. The collector is forced to be as coldly rational as possible about something for which she probably feels great passion.

A print is worth what the buyer is willing and able to pay for it. In consequence, the more informed and experienced collector can often pay less for a print than an inexperienced or impulsive bidder, because he or she is in greater command of the many factors that determine its value, as opposed to its price. The experienced collector has been in the game long enough to realize that with very few exceptions, another copy of a given print will appear in the market under circumstances that could be more advantageous than those of the present moment. There is no substitute for the knowledge that comes with time and experience

Rembrandt and Whistler will never go begging, while other artists of comparable merit lie waiting in the shadows to be discovered - or rediscovered. Changing tastes can have a direct bearing on current values. Consider the work of one of my favorites, Arthur William Heintzelman (1891 - 1965), an American etcher who lived and worked for many years in Paris and Switzerand.  Heintzelman enjoyed phenomenal artistic and financial success in Paris during the 1920s, exemplified by the beautiful, two-volume catalog raisonné of his work produced by his publisher Marcel Guiot, an honor not lightly bestowed by the French on living artists in general and on American artists in particular.

Heintzelman returned to the United States in 1934 when the worldwide economic depression brought about a drastic downturn in his fortunes when demand for his  work, and everyone else's work for that matter, fell sharply away. In 1941, he became the first Keeper of Prints at the Boston Public Library and, by the time of his retirement in 1961 had been instrumental in building the Department of Prints into a front-rank institution respected by collectotrs and scholars the world over.

Heintzelman's body of work has enduring artistic merit notwithstanding the slack contemporary demand for it. This is true of many other artists as well; my hope is that you can find one of them to champion. Slack demand for a particular artist works to the advantage of a print collector who can take a long-term approach to building a collection because lack of interest makes the artist's work more affordable while everyone else is looking the other way. If you are starting out and have more time than money, collecting the work of lesser-known artists can be a good strategy to make the most of your limited resources. The long-term result of this tactic will be the development of a richly satisfying and artistically coherent collection. The downside risk is that the artist of your choice may remain forever in the shadows, but if you're buying what you love, why should you care?. Only the very rich should use art as a speculative investment medium. Does anyone think that Steve Wynn's Picasso is a true reflection of his aesthetic sensitivities, or is it a clever investment of his spare cash? You have only to look at one of his casino buildings to answer that questionn.

While you're out there buying don't neglect the other factors that affect the intrinsic value of a print in addition to the fundamental demand - or lack of it - for an artist's work. The two most significant are Condition and Scarcity.

Condition will have a dramatic effect on the price of a print. If a print needs extensive conservation and restoration work, the actual purchase price could possibly be a very small portion of its total overall cost to you. Many prints in poor condition are simply not worth the added cost that you will incur for the services of a trained professional conservator. If you do buy a seriously flawed print for a fair price, it would be best to think of it as a placeholder that you can study and admire "as is" while you wait for a healthier copy to appear, as it almost certainly will. Once replaced, it can be sent to the auctioneer and, in all likelihood, enable you to recover your original investment.

Scarcity will also strongly influence price. If the edition was small and the artist widely collected, the appearance of a particular work will attract the attention of serious collectors and dealers and create a more intense competitive situation in the auction room as a result.

In addition to the foregoing, remember that there are factors that have a bearing on the price that you will pay for a work:

Interest in an auction can be affected in many ways. If the auction was not widely advertised; if an auction of similar work is scheduled by another auctioneer on the same day; if there's severe weather in the auctioneer's general location; or if there's an event of some magnitude that commands the interest and attention of the public, the number of bidders on hand and on the Internet can be seriously reduced, and your chances of securing desirable lots at lower hammer prices can increase dramatically. This doesn't happen very often, but it does happen. A leading auction house in a major city recently held an Internet-based auction for a group of beautiful late Nineteenth Century lithographs. When the clock ran out, it became clear that there was only a single bidder for many of the lots, and even more astonishingly, there was no bidder for a substantial portion of the offerings.

Auctioneers take pains to properly describe each lot, but oversights or inadvertent misstatements do happen. The possibility of human error cannot be overruled. In such cases, a prospective bidder with more than superficial knowledge of an artist's work can recognize the error and take advantage of that knowledge to buy the proverbial silk purse at a sow's ear price or, alternatively, to avoid a costly misstep based on erroneous information..

If there is a lesson in this scenario, it is that the bidder with extensive knowledge of an artist and her work holds a decided advantage over those less well informed. If you are serious about collecting the work of an artist, you should own the catalog raisonné for that artist. The catalog raisonné is a complete listing of every known example of the artist's work, with detailed descriptions, dimensions, creation date, edition size, and pertinent background information.

A collection of inexpensive prints can be as carefully and thoughtfully acquired as a portfolio of old masters, and bring a lifetime of pleasure to the collector. Knowledge, patience, and discipline acquired over time will bear the sweetest fruit. Sinclair Hitchings, Heintzelman's successor as Keeper of Prints at The Boston Public Library, delivered a wonderful lecture at his alma mater, Dartmouth College, entitled "Seven Secrets of Collecting (And Then a Few More)" in May, 1994. It is informative, entertaining, and well worth your attention; here's the link: Enjoy.

Death By Framing

Not long ago, I found a nice etching in an old bookshop in northern Connecticut. It was one of several sitting on the floor and stacked against a bookcase. There is no way of knowing how long it had been there, but like its companions it was covered with dust and grime. There were traces of an acidic backing sheet, cardboard backer was brittle with age and the cumulative effects of the acidic pulp used to make the paper. As soon as I returned home with my find, I carefully removed the print from its frame. The print itself was attached to the face of the mat with masking tape. The image was soiled but was in otherwise good condition. I carefully removed the tape and most of the adhesive residue, gently cleaned the face of the print, and installed it in a new museum quality mount. The difference in appearance was remarkable; the print will remain bright and stable for many years to come.

There is nothing more dispiriting than a beautiful print in toxic surroundings. If you are truly fond of a work of art, whatever form it may take and whatever price you paid, you should preserve and maintain it in the best possible condition. Viewed from a perfectly selfish standpoint, the additional cost of properly matting and framing a print will preserve its value. When a shabbily framed print makes its way to the auction house, the long-term adverse effects of the owner's short-sightedness or neglect will have a direct and negative bearing on the price realized.

Here are some basic rules of thumb that apply to framing works of art on paper:

1. Maintain the original print in as close to original condition as possible. Never trim the margins of a print in order to fit an available frame. Rather, order a frame that not only accommodates the full sheet but which also allows extra space on all four edges.

2. Do not adhere or dry mount a work on paper to a substrate. If the print has been torn it can often be carefully mended; if the print is particularly valuable, let an expert perform the repairs. The result can appear to be perfect, but the original damage should and will be discernible to a trained eye, though not necessarily evident to the casual viewer.

3. Everything that you do to a print, such as performing minor repairs or applying hangers in order to mount the print for framing, should be reversible. Be sure to use materials that are stable and acid free, and adhesives that are water soluble. On no account should you ever use solvent based adhesive, so-called magic mending tapes or masking tape on - or near - a fine print. Specialty tapes and adhesives are readily available from a number of outlets and are reasonably priced. Always use them. Good quality framing supplies are readily available in better art supply stores and on line.

4. Because of the effects of changes in temperature and humidity, It is essential that a framed work of art be allowed to expand or contract. Be sure to allow ample space on all four sides of the sheet, because ripples will form if there is insufficient room for movement. The result can be extremely conspicuous and will detract from the overall appearance of the print. Moreover, these ripples have a nasty tendency to set, and the resulting distortion is extremely difficult to reverse without expert assistance. For the same reason, the circumference of the print must never be adhered to either the substrate mount or to the back of the mat itself. Unless the print is very large and printed on heavy paper, hangers at the upper corners of the print or properly spaced mounting corners will ordinarily suffice both to hold the artwork in proper position and  to accommodate its expansion and contraction without harm.

5. There must always be a space between the face of the print and the protective glass of the frame. Condensation will otherwise move from the impermeable glass to the print with potentially disastrous results including, but not limited to, water staining and the formation of mold or mildew. The mat itself provides adequate spacing in most circumstances. If a mat will not be used, it will be necessary to use spacers around the perimeter of the frame; concealed by the face of the frame, they will provide the gap between print and glass necessary to avoid transfer of condensation and to allow the print itself to breathe.

6. If the print is a valuable one, the mount to which the print is attached and the mat which frames the print should be buffered 100% cotton fiber (or "rag") board. As a matter of personal preference, I use a product generically referred to as "museum mounting board" for the mat and either museum mounting board or foam board with 100% cotton fiber liners for the mount. The buffering agent is typically calcium carbonate, which guards against acid migration. This product is available in a limited range of colors, most of which are shades of white together with grey and black. For the mat, four ply mounting board provides a pleasing depth for the mat bevel and a healthy gap between print and glass. If you opt to use standard mat board (Bainbridge, Crescent, and other brands) be sure that the product is acid free. The inherent acidity of inexpensive mat boards will migrate to the print itself over time, causing discoloration of the print and creating brittleness in the paper. If you buy a print whose beveled aperture is darker than the face of the mat, remove the print from such a hostile environment as quickly as possible. Inexpensive frames are available almost everywhere and are almost always are supplied with acidic mats. Avoid such trash at all costs or discard the supplied mat and mount and replace it with non-acidic materials.

7. If you've taken all of the necessary pains to make the framed environment a congenial one for your print, use acid-free backing paper for the frame itself. The presence of brown kraft paper on the back of the frame is a warning that all may not be well within. As a matter of course, I remove the print from any frame backed with acidic brown paper.

Once your artwork is properly framed, there are a number of caveats that should govern the placement of the work for display. Exposure to direct sunlight should be avoided, even with the use of UV-resistant glass. Valuable prints should not be hung above radiators or other heat sources or in location where excessive dampness may be encountered. These admonitions are nothing more than the application of common sense; the most carefully and skilfully framed work is susceptible to the effects of careless placement. But insofar as the foregoing seven commandments are obeyed by the serious collector, they will stand you in good stead and earn the gratitude of those who will recognize both your consummate good taste in art and your obvious devotion to the long and happy life of works on paper in the decades and centuries to come.

The Picasso Delusion

Show me a print auction catalog and almost without exception I'll show you an abundance of Picassos up for sale. This is in part the result of the prodigious lifetime output of this one man dynamo on a scale rivaling the productivity of Foxconn, the Chinese high-tech manufacturer of iPads, iPhones and similar gadgets.

Titian, the Energizer Bunny of his age, produced some 600 paintings, 300 etchings, and 1,400 drawings for a total of around 2,300 works. By way of comparison, Vermeer's known lifetime output stands at 26 paintings. But Titian, who lived to a ripe old age, is a one hit wonder compared to Picasso, who with some 13,500 paintings; at least that many drawings; some 2,500 original prints - each in an average edition of 75; a thousand or so ceramics; and some 700 sculptures in other media, produced a total somewhere north of a mind-boggling quarter-million pieces. It is hard to believe that he had the time to acquire his well-deserved reputation as a prodigious swordsman.

In the normal world, the law of supply and demand generally tends to bring some semblance of rationality to the value of things. But not with Pablo Diego José Francisco de Paula Juan Nepomuceno María de los Remedios Cipriano de la Santísima Trinidad Ruiz y Picasso; the old fox was as much a marketing genius as an artistic one, remaining hale and hearty into his tenth decade and feeding the seemingly insatiable art-buying public an almost endless stream of his work. He has provided a dependable up-market revenue stream to galleries, auction houses, and other such fellow travelers across a span of many years and is revered accordingly.

Picasso's signature on a work of art guarantees a ready market for it. Auction prices for Picassos of every kind are testament to the indifference of the buyer to the absurd overvaluation of much of his output, fueled by a burning desire for a Picasso signature in an artfully subtle place on the wall, on the shelf, or in the vitrine. There it can be discovered and admired by equally irrational and uninformed friends, clients, tradesmen, and burglars; for above all others, the Picasso name is instantly recognizable the wide world over excepting, perhaps, the salons of the Taliban.

The wellspring of this phenomenon is, to be fair, Picasso's genius: when he was at the top of his iconoclastic form there was none better. But an honest look at his life's work will, I think, reveal a high proportion of it to be ordinary and best described as a painting, or print, or vase “after Picasso” even though by Picasso himself. Once he became fabulously wealthy and a kind or art world rock star, Picasso, like the similar few who actually make a fine living through their art and who live long enough to gloat, tend to engage in self-caricature. There is no need to be brilliant, provocative, inspired; it is enough to sing the same old tunes over and over and be careful not to rock the boat.

There is of course an enormous price disparity between Picasso's best work and the rather more ordinary stuff, though even the least of these tend to be pricy beyond reason. The low end of the food chain happily fills a very powerful need among the less discerning, less affluent members of the I Must Have A Picasso Club. Unlike those few who inhabit the top of the food chain, like Mr. Steve Wynn, who can harpoon a twenty-five million dollar Picasso painting and make light of it, the many will clutch their new acquisition to their bosom, insure it to the hilt, send it out for the perfect frame, place it on display, and frequently genuflect before their precious icon, until the day when they themselves join the Choir Invisible. After the usual expressions of grief, their heirs will sense a revenue opportunity in that boring old lithograph and send it into the world, where it will, for many years to come, massage the ego of its next owner. And so it goes.

The Auction Experience

Part I: Preliminaries

My Uncle Lou loved to play the horses, so whenever he came to New York he'd call my father, saying “Johnny, pick me up and we'll go and buy some oats at Aqueduct!” In auctions as in horse races, the greener the student, the higher the “tuition”. Uncle Lou was joking – he was a very good handicapper, and for his part, my father wisely never strayed from the two-dollar window.

Participating in a live auction is enjoyable and can, at times, be exciting. But the reason that you're there in the first place – winning the lots that will enhance your collection or, if you are a dealer like me, strengthen the quality of your inventory - demands thorough preparation and discipline, the key predictors of success and satisfaction. The important point is to recognize and learn from your mistakes, because it's inevitable that you'll “buy some oats” along the way.

There are several ways to directly participate in an auction. In my opinion, being there is best, not least because of the sense of excitement that precedes auction itself, but also because you'll get to observe the complex interactions that make the event a study in social Darwinism. Bidding on the phone provides the immediacy of participation absent the emotional and experiential fringe benefits. On-line bidding, which has become more prevalent in recent years, usually provides an audio / video link to the auction proceedings. Rremember, however, that audio / video feed often lags behind the real-time proceedings. You can also submit advance written bids by e-mail or by fax.

In certain situations, you may want to bid indirectly through a dealer acting on your behalf. The dealer must know your bid limit, of course. The surrogate provides you with anonymity and a dispassionate, professional approach to the coming auction proceedings. This is probably best when the object of your heart's desire is sure to be costly and the target of intense competition.

The direct methods have one requirement in common: to participate in the auction, you must agree to abide by the the auctioneer's terms and conditions. When you register with the auctioneer and agree to these terms and conditions, you become party to a binding, legally enforceable contract. Auctioneers generally include this information in their printed auction catalogs, as well as on line at their websites. I am telling you because if you didn't already know this, now you do. Ignorance is no excuse.

Some quiet evening, sit down and carefully read the Conditions of Sale. Then read the Limited Warranty. Finally, read all of the advisory language. Re-read it until you clearly understand what is being said and, most importantly, what it means to you as a prospective buyer. If you are new to auctions, this effort will pay great dividends and help you to avoid the costly mistakes so often born of ignorance.

There is no need to be intimidated by auctions and auctioneers. Auctioneers are neither enemies nor adversaries. Their role is to provide a straightforward, transparent environment for the transfer of ownership of desirable objects from a willing seller to a willing buyer. Your adversary is the competing bidder. Your only prospective enemy is the person who greets you in the mirror each morning, and then only when you have failed to thoroughly prepare for the auction and maintain bidding discipline.

While you must qualify to participate in an auction, you are under no compulsion to bid. But if you are the high bidder at the fall of the hammer, you are now the owner of the lot with responsibilities to fulfill before your can actually possess it. If you have executed your bidding strategy properly, you will have paid no more for an auction lot than it is worth and that you can afford, and your purchase will be an occasion for happiness. There are, however, a number of reasons why your joy in victory can be greatly diminished, and I will discuss them in my next installment.


Part II: Print Values – An Equation In Many Variables

The satisfaction derived from a winning bid would be seriously blunted if you have paid too much at the fall of the hammer. I say this with some authority because, in the early stages of my involvement on the bidding side of auctions, I frequently allowed enthusiasm fueled by adrenaline to gain the upper hand. I was more naive then, almost entirely unaware of the breadth and depth of my ignorance. As a novice collector and bidder, the relatively inexpensive lots that I sought ultimately went for sums that never caused undue distress. For this I thank my parents, who were not spared the rigors of the Great Depression, and who imparted their resulting fiscal conservatism by osmosis to their son, who pretended not to be paying attention. If you're a neophyte as all of us have surely been, this is a good way to begin.

The appropriate price for a print is governed by its popularity, its scarcity, and its condition.

Let's start with popularity. Picasso always draws intense interest at auction simply because so many people want something signed by him in a conspicuous location on their wall. This allows the owner of the print to bathe in his own self-esteem, congratulate himself for his own good taste and, with luck, provoke spasms of envy of the deepest green among his friends and acquaintances. Even mediocre pieces by Picasso fetch prices well in excess of their intrinsic value as works of art - provided that the signature is plainly visible. But the difference in price between a truly great Picasso lithograph and a less inspired work of his later years will be considerable, placing the latter within reach of those with a lower net worth but an equally strong penchant for conspicuous consumption.

Scarcity as a factor of price is inextricably linked to popularity. A very rare impression by a highly collectible artist will fetch a considerably higher price than either a print by the same artist from a large edition, artistic quality being equal, or a scarce impression by an artist currently out of favor or less well known, assuming artistic merit to be comparable.

Condition adds yet another variable to the equation. Condition will always affect the value of a print, but less so for a rare masterwork than for something not as desirable. Much will be forgiven if a copy of Rembrandt's Christ Healing the Sick appears at auction with correctable condition problems. Though its value will undoubtedly be affected, it will still command a price that compares favorably with the annual income of a Boston police officer with ample detail assignments. The less desirable a print, the greater the negative impact of condition problems on its price. All other factors being equal, less than perfect condition will count more heavily against a print from a large edition than from a small one.

Auctioneers staff their various departments with talented and knowledgeable individuals who arrange and supervise auctions in their specific area of expertise, such as fine prints and drawings; rare books; and autographs, for example. When receiving consignments from prospective sellers, a low to high auction estimate will be established for each item, together with a reserve price below which the item will not be sold, if the seller requests it. The auction estimate represents the auctioneer's best judgment of the approximate range within which the item is likely to sell. This is by no means infallible, but is often surprisingly close to the mark. The price range is distilled from a combination of factors including past auction records, overall condition, frequency of the item's appearance at auction in recent years, and the auctioneer's intuitive sense of the current market.

You can do worse than to use the auction estimate as your starting point, but you can also do better with further research, which I'll discuss in my next installment.


Part III –  A Glimpse At Auction Psychology

Each auction has its own chemistry based on the pool of assembled bidders; the nature, quality, and rarity of the lots; the time of year; the state of the economy; and, perhaps, the phase of the moon. Print auctions are generally eclectic affairs. With lots ranging from old master etchings to contemporary serigraphs and everything in between, the focus of each bidder is often directed toward one or another artist, genre, or period, distributing competitive intensity and moderating it as regards any single lot.

There is always the likelihood that you will be competing against an equally motivated buyer or buyers; the resulting bidding war can drive the final price far higher that any collector or dealer would ordinarily pay. When this happens, you will occasionally hear the auctioneer effusively thank the warring bidders at the fall of the hammer. If you have emerged victorious, this is no occasion to be pleased with yourself or appreciative of the the auctioneer's gratitude. Ultimately, it's your decision – and yours alone – to either chase the comet's tail or to gracefully bow out of the fray. It is in the frenzied atmosphere of such situations that the competitive instinct and, in Mr. Alan Greenspan's immortal phrase, “irrational exuberance,” can raise hell with your well-laid plans.

Unless you are collecting in the realm of top tier works by top tier artists, there is no reason to believe that a given print will sufficiently appreciate in value over time to justify the higher price that you have paid. In fact, prices paid for an artist's work can rise or fall significantly over time and do so almost without exception. If you view your print collection as an investment vehicle rather than as a source of personal pleasure offering a lifetime of engagement and study, I strongly recommend that you take a cold shower and contact a broker representing Canadian mining stocks, where your chance for wealth beyond your wildest dreams is marginally higher.

I have been what is called the under-bidder on numerous occasions; I have not yet found an instance where the resulting regret at having lost the lot has lasted more than one day. Always remember that if you are buying prints, you are competing for something that exists in multiples. You will probably see another copy of the work at auction in the near future. When the bidding goes wild for a certain print, the high price realized will draw additional copies to the market from sellers eager to capitalize on this unexpected and irrational spike in value.

    In a well-advertised auction, especially one with lots at the high end of the quality/scarcity spectrum, expect this to happen. If you can identify them, dealers are your best price barometer. Watch them. At some point they will sit on their hands unless they're bidding on behalf of a client, and if you manage to secure the item one or two increments above their stopping point, you have probably won the lot at a reasonable price. As an added benefit, the dealer will have thoroughly examined the lots of interest prior to the auction, and may have seen something that you, the novice bidder, have missed. This will have a significant bearing on his or her decision to withdraw from the bidding at a particular point.

    The most fearsome adversary at auction is the bidder with great knowledge of the material being sold, adequate monetary resources, and the emotional discipline of Mr. Spock. If you do your homework with respect to your favorite artists, and plan thoroughly for the auction itself, you will get as close to the Vulcan ideal as it is humanly possible to do. My next installment will discuss bidding strategies.


    Part IV – Preparing For The Auction

    Working with the auction catalog, build a fantasy list by identifying all of the lots (with auction estimates) that you would add to your collection if money were no object. Now rank the list in order of preference. Leave it alone for a day or two, then return and refine it again. Now it's time to do some research to validate or modify the auctioneer's estimates.

    If you're a dealer or a serious collector, you will have access to an auction price database such as,, or Review their various plans in order to identify one that best suits your needs. In most cases, a short-term trial membership is usually available so that you can test the waters before making a more cost-effective long-term commitment.

    Check each of the items on your wish list against the price database that you've chosen. In most cases, you will find a number of auction records for each of the upcoming lots which span the past ten or more years. Some prices may be significantly higher than average resulting from intense competition for the print on that particular day, an inscription with high association value, or a simple case of irrational exuberance. In one case in my experience, the relatively high price for a particular print resulted from an intentionally generous gesture by the winning bidder at a charity auction. A lower than expected price could be the result of poor condition or simple lack of interest among the assembled bidders.

    After eliminating the excessively high and low auction prices, the average of the mid-range prices realized is a good check against the auctioneer's catalog estimate. If you find a given work at a retail site, you should expect to see a somewhat higher price for it, though in recent years, dealers have become more reticent about displaying prices on line.

    Unless the catalog description of a print is detailed and describes specific points explicitly, be sure to obtain condition reports from the auctioneer for each lot in question. Ultimately, there is no substitute for being present at the auction preview sessions; the auctioneer's staff is there to help you obtain the information that you need.

    Based on your research, establish a value for each lot that represents a reasoned and reasonable bid. Calculate the total for all of the lots on your list and compare that sum to your budget for the auction. Here's where it may be necessary to make some difficult choices in order to reduce the total dollar value of your wish list about 20 per cent lower than your budget. This is because the catalog's auction estimates do not include the buyer's premium that will be added to your invoice.

    Depending on the auctioneer, this premium can range from 15 to 25 per cent. If you bid through an on-line intermediary like Live Auctioneers, the buyer's premium will typically increase by an additional 3 per cent. If you are buying for your collection, you will also be responsible for state sales tax if you are located in the same state as the auctioneer or if you are picking up your lots at the auction rooms.You can legally avoid the sales tax if a) you and the auction house are located in different states, and b) you arrange for the auctioneer or a third party to pack and ship the lots to you at your expense.

    Assume that you're planning to bid in person at a Skinner auction in Boston; that you live in Massachusetts; and that you have a total auction budget of $5,000. For every dollar that you bid, you will also be charged a twenty-five per cent buyer's premium, and sales tax of 6.25 per cent. This means that your winning bids should total about $3,765.00. If your winning bids total $5,000.00, your auction invoice will be about $6,640.00. This illustrates how planning and discipline (especially by avoiding runaway bidding wars) can help you to avoid unnecessary peptic upset. Your immediate disappointment at standing on the sidelines while others bid merrily on some of your favorites will be tempered when you have the opportunity to bid on other copies of the same works in surprisingly short order. Happy hunting!