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: http://www.dartmouth.edu/~library/Library_Bulletin/Nov1995/LB-N95-Hitchings.html. Enjoy.