Thu, Feb 01, 2018 - Page 14 News List

Is the fastest-growing segment of the art market the cheapest?

By James Tarmy  /  Bloomberg

A woman passes Campbell’s Soup Can prints by American pop artist Andy Warhol in April, 2015, at the Museum Centre in the Russian Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk. As the price of original art soars, the print market booms.

Photo: Reuters

In June of last year, Heritage Auctions decided to increase the number of its prints and multiples auctions from four times a year to once a month.

It had been holding live and online auctions in the category (which describes any artwork that is produced in editions, rather than one-offs) for about a year, and when “we tried it online at a lower price point, we couldn’t believe it,” says Leon Benrimon, director of modern and contemporary art at Heritage.

“Everything sold.”

The sales have gone so well, he says, that they plan to start holding them weekly this summer. “People are excited,” he says. “But we’re still only capturing a fragment of the marketplace.”

Prints have been around since the Renaissance, and have always occupied a slightly uneasy place in the art market. They’re designed by an artist and often signed by the artist, but they are, by definition, reproductions.

“They used to call it a gateway drug,” says Deborah Ripley, director of Bonhams auction house’s prints and multiples department. “It was where beginners in the art world started collecting, and that would encourage them: They might have been buying works at a lower price point, but they could tell their friends, ‘Yes, I have a work by Warhol.”

Prints might be an entry point into the art market, specialists say, but it’s increasingly clear that for many, the category has become a destination in itself over the last two years or so.

“Off the top of my head, I’d say that 50 percent of every auction [is made up of] new bidders,” says Benrimon. That’s a lot of new people each time. “And that’s not after one or two auctions — that’s after 15 of them. And we just look at it, and we don’t get it: How is that possible?”


As with every market, the prints market has tiers. There are very expensive prints, a few of which have sold for more than US$1 million; there are merely expensive prints, which sell for six-figure sums; and there is the so-called “low market” of prints, effectively in the sub US$15,000 range.

The most expensive prints will have been designed by an artist expressly as a print: It’s a work of art that is intended to be reproduced. At the lowest end of the market, in contrast, prints are copies of paintings.

The value of a print — any print — is largely determined by two things: “The reputation of the artist and the quality of a print,” says Dick Solomon, president of Pace Prints, a New York gallery and publisher that deals with the very highest end of the market. “To a lesser extent, there’s also the number of prints in the edition.”

The edition size, or number of reproductions, is decided beforehand by the artist, and it is finite: If it’s an edition of 72, you can be sure only 72 exist.

(This is fudged slightly by the phenomenon of “artist’s proofs,” the initial impressions used to test the print, which can add to the total number of works in an edition.)

When Solomon entered the business in the 1970s, the primary economic driver for prints was old masters; once that supply dried up, the market pivoted to work from the 20th century and then the 21st century.

“In the old days, there were such things as painting collectors and print collectors,” Solomon says. “Now it’s a mixed bag and really depends on the price level.”

Dealers are currently trying to understand the growth in the prints market, and—just as important—figure out if that growth will continue.

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