Should I Collect Prints or Paintings?

“Want to come up and see my etchings?” The opportunity to throw out a line like this may be one motive to collect prints, but there are much better reasons.

Collecting prints is the auction equivalent of “having your cake and eating it too. “Print” is a broad term that, in the context of fine art, refers to a work for which the artist creates the printing matrix, such as an etched plate, a lithographic stone, or a carved woodblock, and uses this to create multiple impressions of an image.

The artist may or may not be the actual printer, but generally approves of the quality and methodology of printing, and often signs his or her prints by hand.

What are Prints?

Prints tend to be smaller in scale than paintings – unless you’re looking at Modern and Contemporary works – and generally invite the close, intimate scrutiny that a smaller space engenders. This intimacy lends itself extremely well to adorning the walls of a regular-sized home.

If you have a limited budget—who doesn’t these days?—you should consider prints.

Because of their very nature, prints are less expensive than paintings. Prints are multiples, rather than one-of-a-kind works of art, so clearly they are less rare. This also means that condition is extremely important. In buying a unique work, if you absolutely love the image you may be more accepting of some minor condition problems.

Things to Consider

With prints, however, the rules change. Consider an iconic etching like Edward Hopper’s Night Shadows of 1921. If that is the work you want, then you have options. This work was printed in an edition of 500.

The very next one to come up at auction might be laid down or have trimmed margins or staining — all negative condition issues. If you’re willing to overlook those problems, you could get one of those 500 etchings for around $25,000 or less. Or, you can hold out for a fantastic impression in pristine condition for $40,000.

The Hopper in poor condition may not be within your price range, but here’s another example: Let’s say you want to buy Thomas Hart Benton oil—just a minor one. Well, you need to be ready to spend $300,000 to $500,000. That’s the price of a house! It’s simply beyond most people’s budgets. And that doesn’t even address the cost of a prime example of his painting – his record for auction prices is just over $2.4 million.

But, you can get a great Thomas Hart Benton lithograph—a quintessential example of his work—for $3,000 to $5,000. That’s not cheap, but it’s only a mortgage payment or two, and if you’re in love, what are a few mortgage payments? And since you’re wondering; for a major Hopper painting, plan to spend the price of the house, two new cars, plus 4 years of college tuition… or over $1,000,000. Suddenly $25,000-40,000 seems like a bargain.

My advice to you is, “have your house and decorate it too.”

So, should you collect prints or paintings? It’s a few mortgage payments versus the whole house. You make the call!

Guest Luxury by Robin Starr,

As Director of American & European Works of Art, Robin Starr heads one of Skinner’s most important specialty departments. In this key role she oversees a staff of specialists who appraise and catalog prints, paintings, sculpture, and works on paper for a wide variety of Skinner clients, including arts and cultural institutions, estates, major collectors, and private individuals. She is also widely regarded as one of Skinner’s most vibrant and animated auctioneers, bringing an enthusiastic spirit to the podium at Skinner’s American & European Paintings & Prints auctions, held three times annually. Starr’s area of specialization is in American paintings and prints from the 19th and early 20th centuries. Twitter: SkinnerInc

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