Chapter 1: A Short Semantic Sidestep

(It’s not Just Semantics)

Most people who buy “works of art” actually buy prints of well-known art. Many collectors of fine art also buy prints, primarily because prints are more available and more affordable than one-of-a-kind works. Is there a difference between these two types of prints? Apart from serious collectors, it is startling how few buyers even know the definition of the term “print”. It has a number of meanings, so let’s start with a basic definition.

I promised you to go easy on the technical jargon, and I’ll keep my promise. Those of you who want to know exactly what an intaglio print is, or how to make an aquatint, can Google those terms. Here we’ll stick to the essentials.

There are essentially two types of prints: original and reproductive. A reproductive print is at it sounds: a reproduction, usually involving a photograph or stencil, of a work of art. It typically has little value. An original print, in general (and always in the case of original Picasso prints), is the end-product of one or more techniques in which the artist has created a design expressly for that print and, in general (again, always in the case of original Picasso prints), is the handiwork of the artist himself. The artist creates the design directly on some sort of plate (copper, stone, etc.) or in some cases he or his assistant transfers the design from paper onto the plate. The print is then produced by applying paper to the inked plate under pressure. The print is not dependent upon any precedent, more original work. It is not a direct copy of a painting. Although there may be related drawings or paintings, there is no earlier work of art from which the print has been directly derived. And the plate, although interesting, is not the finished work of art.

In discussions of original prints, you’ll hear the word “impression” over and over again. This term is derived from the process of printing, in which ink is “impressed”, or applied under the pressure of the printing press, to a sheet of paper. The term is used to refer to the image the ink has formed on the paper. The printing process has impressed the image onto the paper. In a slightly different sense, impression is just an alternate term for a single print, a particular example of the application of the ink to one particular piece of paper. Another common term, “the quality of the impression”, combines these two meanings, because, in this case, “impression” refers to the single print at hand, and “quality” to how well that particular impression has been inked.

Another semantic source of confusion is easily clarified, namely the distinction between original and unique works of art. If there is more than one impression, of an original print, it is not unique. It is nonetheless original!

Some people feel that the presence of multiple impressions of a print somehow diminishes its desirability. They’re certainly entitled to their opinion. But, as you can see, an original print is every bit as much a direct result of the artist’s creativity and execution as a painting. It may lack the texture of a painting, and it may require a glass or Plexiglas barrier for its protection, but it’s still the artist’s original creation.

It’s funny how many of the same people who consider prints beneath them hold bronzes in high esteem. Just like most prints, bronzes are often not unique but are generally cast in multiples, albeit in typically smaller editions. Yet the sculptor has no more to do with the casting of the plaster than the printmaker with the printing. The sculptor is one step removed from the finished product, just as is the printmaker. With the exception of course of artists who cast their own bronzes (which Picasso didn’t do, to my knowledge) and pull their own prints (which he did do a bit, early in his career when he owned a printing press).

Maybe you’re one of these folks, and I admit to having been one myself when I first started looking at original prints. But attitudes change, especially in response to exposure and education.

By the way, it’s not just semantics—understanding these distinctions could save you a bundle.

The real advantage of collecting prints over unique works is obviously cost. The problem becomes what to do with the more expensive Picasso prints, because, at some point, one can actually buy a decent drawing or painting for the same price or even for less. Actually, I suppose having this problem is a luxury. Once again, though, I think this decision needs to be made according to the relative artistic merits, e.g. the beauty and significance, of the print and drawing, rather than according to a categorical preference for one medium or the other.

Before we move on to the survey of the themes and styles of Picasso’s prints, and their relative rating, let’s talk about one more term, since it seems to be at the forefront of many of my newbie clients’ questions. As one client phrased the question, “Can you tell me something about the fact that [the print in which I’m interested] is one of the artist’s proofs? Does that mean that because it isn’t numbered it is of less value than the rest of the edition?” Here’s what you need to know:

Most of Picasso’s prints were released in editions of 50, with a small number (usually 5 to 20) artist’s proofs. An edition of 50 would be numbered 1/50 to 50/50 by a hand other than Picasso’s. Whereas the artist’s proofs bear no numbers, they were usually inscribed with the words “epreuve d’artiste”, also by another hand.

There are certainly no hard and fast rules about the relative value of artist’s proofs. Some dealers will accord a 10% premium to numbered prints because of their customers’ preferences. I’ve, however, met many dealers and collectors who don’t assign any differential valuation to numbered and unnumbered prints.

Some dealers will tell you that artist’s proofs are more valuable because those are the ones the artist kept for himself, and the artist could be expected to have kept the best for himself. Others will tell you that Picasso handled and scrutinized his proofs more than the numbered edition. Apart from the claim that the artist’s proofs are therefore more valuable, which they’re not, at least on theoretical grounds, these dealers’ contentions may be true, but they don’t add up to much. The exception to the rule is the singular case in each edition of the “bon à tirer” print, in which that “ready to print” designation is in fact inscribed by the artist’s own hand and lends significant added value to the print.

As a practical matter, however, artist’s proofs are usually more desirable than the typical numbered print because they’re in better condition. Having been kept by Picasso throughout his life and then often much longer by his estate, or having been kept by the printers or publishers, the artist’s proofs are much more likely to have escaped the ravages of the elements and of non-archival matting and glazing, and are thus likely to be in much better shape than the numbered proofs. Many have spent their lives in the dark and have only just seen the light of day. Therefore, at least prior to inspection, my preference always leans toward an artist’s proof.

A corollary question to that posed by the reader is the relative value of differently numbered proofs, i.e., is number 1 better than number 50? You might think that the impression of the print numbered 1 might be better than the last one numbered. However, it is not. There are a couple of reasons for this. First, the vast majority of Picasso’s intaglio prints were steel-faced (a process in which the relatively soft copper plate is hardened by plating it with steel). As such, one would expect no differences in the quality of the first and last impression in an edition of fifty or even, in the case of The Vollard Suite, an edition of about 325. Secondly, since the prints are stacked as they exit the printing press, the last one printed is, if anything, more likely to be the first one numbered.

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