Guide to Collecting Picasso's Prints
Copyright Kobi Ledor, MD, 2005-2008. All rights reserved.
”I just bought a Picasso for one dollar at Salvation Army—can you tell me what it’s worth?”
Of all the Picasso-related questions I get, and, as an art dealer who trades solely in Picasso, I get a lot, that one made me laugh out loud. Regardless of your level of knowledge, you probably have a sense that a dollar won’t buy you a real Picasso. But you may be surprised to learn that many beautiful, real Picassos are quite affordable, especially original prints. At the time of this writing, although a few original Picasso prints sell in the six and low seven figures, most sell in the fours and low fives. Some are even priced under a thousand.
How can this be? After all, Picasso is widely collected by individuals as well as by museums and corporations. He also happens to be the dominant artist in the original print market, which is the focus of most Picasso collectors.
Picasso’s prodigious output provides a clue. Simply put, at around 25,000 different original works, he created more works of art than any other artist in history. Of these, there are about 2500 different original prints and over 600 “editioned” ceramics (i.e. ceramic designs produced in multiples), which, at an average edition size of around 75, yield over a quarter of a million pieces of art. As you can see, original works by Picasso are rather plentiful. At the same time, due to the typically very small edition sizes, any particular print is rather rare.
Of course, the numbers of original Picassos in circulation are steadily diminishing as more of them enter museum collections, never to exit again. The ravages of time and of the elements also take their toll on his works, further diminishing their availability, as well as the condition of those that are left.
Most Picasso prints were published in numbered editions of fifty, with typically around fifteen unnumbered artist’s proofs. This means that, in this example, a total of sixty-five prints would have been made. A handful of his prints were published in unsigned editions in the low thousands, and some original posters and ceramics in the low hundreds. Picasso’s most famous series, the group of 100 prints which constitute the Vollard Suite, appeared in an edition size of about 325. But these are the exceptions to the rule. In general, the edition size of fifty, typical of the vast majority of his prints, is miniscule and is one of the factors that make his prints all the more collectible. Knowledgeable collectors consider an edition size of even 325 as small for Picasso, given the comparatively large editions of some other prominent artists.
Clearly, a great multitude of people would like to own an original Picasso. What fraction of these would-be collectors has actually realized that real Picassos are within their grasp, however, is a matter of conjecture. This realization certainly cannot be a secret since, both despite and because of their plentiful supply, they are still so hotly sought after that they constitute the plurality of sales of original fine art prints. And this, both in terms of the number of prints sold as well as the amount of money paid for them. Picasso print sales comprise around 20% of the number of modern prints sold, and around a third of their combined dollar value.
Just as the quantity of Picasso’s output is unrivaled, the number of books about him is also unprecedented. More has been written about Picasso than about any other artist. By far more details of his life and works are available than of any other artist. (There are also many more photographs of Picasso than of any other artist.) So why, you ask, do we need yet another book about him?
The fervor to own a Picasso is widespread. Yet little has been written about where to start, apart from an article that appeared in the Wall Street Journal in 2004 that was rife with misinformation. I liked its title, however: “Your First Picasso: With the art market rebounding, here’s how to spend $5000 and get a great work (and a good investment).”
Picasso’s prints have been exhaustively catalogued in tomes called catalogues raisonnés (which is the French term for reference books offering photos of all of an artist’s works, or works in a particular medium), but these volumes generally provide little additional information other than print and edition details. Selections of Picasso’s prints have been presented in the catalogues of a number of museum exhibitions. Although these catalogues often include introductory discussions of Picasso’s prints and printmaking, their typically flowery European prose and deep excursions into unconvincing symbology would seem to have limited appeal for readers in English. One notable exception to the rule is Betsy Fryberger’s Picasso: Graphic Magician, which suffers from neither of these drawbacks but is limited by the small number of prints in the exhibition, at least relative to Picasso’s large output.
Beyond exhibition catalogues, I know of only one published
attempt at a scholarly discussion of his prints, namely Lisa Florman’s Myth
and Metamorphosis: Picasso’s Classical Prints of the 1930’s, an excellent
read that has unfortunately received little attention. Perhaps its scope
is too limited and its focus too academic to interest the general Picasso
lover and print aficionado.
A limitation of the existing books is the absence of a discussion of the cost of Picasso’s prints: their cost in absolute terms (which admittedly will vary with inflation and appreciation over time) and their relative cost compared to one another (which would not be expected to vary over time as much). This book will classify his prints according to their relative cost, as well as their beauty, desirability, significance, and collectibility by assigning zero to five stars in each category.
In many cases the ratings expressed in this book represent the consensus of Picasso experts and collectors. In other cases my ratings will diverge significantly from the norm. These divergent opinions may herald future market trends—after all, the Picasso market is rather young, in the scheme of things. Much of the following, then, are just the idiosyncratic opinions of one Picasso fanatic, albeit one with uncommonly good taste:). However, it is at least as important for you to know about the prevailing opinions in the marketplace. It will be readily apparent to you in which cases my opinion departs from the consensus, if you simply compare the number of stars of a given print in two categories: beauty and cost. The former category more closely reflects my personal taste, and the latter the market’s. They often go hand in hand. At times, however, when the print costs too much for its beauty, all other factors being equal, I conclude that the print is overvalued. Conversely, when I run across a print that I consider more beautiful than does the market, that’s when I get really interested.
Rating Picasso’s paintings and other unique works would be a less useful exercise, because the market for them is comparatively rarified, and the buyers in that stratosphere, or their advisers, are already rather sophisticated (apart from those, of course, who buy their drawings at Costco or on eBay, or, yes, at Salvation Army). The rest of us can simply enjoy these works when we see them first-hand at museums, or examine photographs of them in coffee table books or online. For most practical purposes, there’s less of a need to concern ourselves with their price tags. But in the case of Picasso’s editioned works, there are many thousands of Picasso lovers and collectors out there, both current and future, who, judging by the many questions I’ve fielded, could use a bit of guidance.
To this end, this book will endeavor to accomplish the following:
1. Define basic terms such as what is an original print,
But another word about the admittedly rather nuts-and-bolts title of this book. It implies a practical guide to collecting, which I fully intend this book to be. It suggests, as corroborated by the many emails and phone calls that I have received, that there is an immense lack of understanding, especially among new collectors, of what is an original print, much less how to identify Picassos as original. It does not imply any sort of irreverence to the art itself, which, as you may have gathered by now, I consider rather hallowed. Nor do I mean it to suggest that collecting Picassos, or any other art for that matter, should be about dollars and cents, as a primary motivation. In my opinion, you should collect art because you love it, and because you expect it to beautify your milieu or to enrich your life with graphically novel and stunning commentary on the human condition.
This book is intended for art lovers, for Picasso lovers in particular, and, more specifically, for Picasso collectors and potential collectors. A prospective client recently said to me, rather ingenuously, “OK, at least I don’t insist on a signed piece, but still I wonder if I want to buy a Picasso just because of the name.” Please, do yourself a favor: don’t buy the name—buy the art.
Just as I don’t advise someone to buy a name for its own sake, much less a signature, I also don’t advise an approach to art with the primary aim of investment. On the other hand, if one wishes to invest in art, as a blue chip artist about whom so much has been written and who is so deeply ensconced in museum collections around the world, Picasso is a good place to park one’s chips. Probably the best place.
Before we deepen our appreciation of Picasso, the master printmaker, and get into the nitty gritty of collecting and investing in Picassos, let’s first find out what an original print is. This definition is really the cornerstone of an appreciation of printmaking, yet art lovers who are new to collecting stumble all over it. So let’s fix that right now.
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