Art prints can be so much more than just a copy of an original artwork
Lenticular art, much like modern digital art, is a form that can only exist as an art print; there is no true original artwork as you have in painting. While NFTs and blockchain registration are beginning to create a solution to that, it’s far from a modern phenomenon. Warhol famously enjoyed creating original artworks with silkscreen prints which could also only exist in full once printed, and the far older methods of etchings and woodcuts takes us back centuries more. You could argue that the woodcut or etching itself was the “original”, but the artwork is only seen as the artist intended once printed, so is it really?
Art prints can have an undeserved reputation as having little value, which may be true of a mass produced poster, though even they can gain value with age and increasing rarity. High quality art prints, produced in limited editions, ideally with the oversight and approval of the artist, are something else though; they can gain incredible value over time and find their way into any London gallery. As with all art collecting, you have to pick the right artists to collect, not all prints are created equal, and value can change dramatically in a short space of time and dependent upon the condition of the print.
A Rembrandt etching from 1653, “Christ Crucified Between the Two Thieves: The Three Crosses”, of which around 80 copies are known to exist, was valued at around £15,000 in 1967, in 2006 a copy sold at Christie’s art auctions in London for almost £700,000, and one is rumoured to have sold privately for over £1 million. So which artists are the big sellers in the art print world, and which pieces are hung most proudly in private or public art galleries?
Impressionists and modernists dominate art print auctions
Many names repeat as you look through the highest value print sales, old masters are represented with several etchings by Durer, featuring Adam and Eve and maps of the sky, both from the early 1500s and selling for almost £400,000, and also by Rembrandt’s etchings of Christ, three of which have sold for around £700,000. Both artists thoroughly embraced the new print-making technologies of their time, creating striking imagery, quality, and popularity for the art print form.
The highest value contemporary artists come from pop art, with one of Jasper John’s monotype art prints selling for over £1 million in 2012, but he is overshadowed by the pop artist who embraced print most passionately. Warhol’s “Mao” and “Marilyn Monroe”, limited to just ten art prints each, have sold for well over £1 million several times, with one Mao print selling at Sotheby’s in London in 2012 for almost £2 million. This is only enough to pull Warhol into the top five of all time though, with all of the other biggest prices going to printed original artworks by modern and impressionist artists.
Edvard Munch sits either side of Warhol with the fourth and sixth highest selling prints; in the late 1800s the painter went through an intensive printmaking period which included “Vampire II”, a lithograph and woodcut, sold in 2007 for just over £1.5 million, and a burnished aquatint, “Young Girl on the Beach”, created by scraping aquatint off of a zinc plate, which is then pressed to the paper. He made very few aquatints, none after 1897, and so when this rare art print came to auction in 2013 it sold for £2.2 million.
The great rivals; the art prints of Picasso and Matisse
Picasso and Matisse are the two great names of the impressionist and modernist period, both influenced by Cezanne but moving in very different directions, and maintaining a very public rivalry and close friendship throughout. The third most expensive art print is “La Repas Frugal” by Picasso, an etching from his blue period and only the second etching he had ever created, sold for just over £2.2 million in 2012.
“Océanie, La Mer” by Matisse is the second most expensive, selling for £3.5 million in 2011. It is one of a limited edition of 30 screen prints onto linen, created with paper cut outs; the first time he used this technique that would dominate his later work.
Finally, the most valuable art print of all time, sold at Christie’s New York in 2011 for £3.75 million, Picasso’s “La Femme Qui Pleure I”, a work of etching and drypoint. Further reflecting on the bombing of Guernica after his famous mural, the print also reflects on his complex relationships and feelings towards Dora Maar and Marie-Thérèse Walter, the two women in his life at the time. Full of pain, grief, and texture, Picasso himself ascribed great importance to the work, taking it through seven completely independent stages before reaching the final form, and gifting a limited run of 15 to personally selected individuals.
Art prints are unlikely to ever rival original paintings for art gallery space, or even digital forms of originality such as NFT artworks, but they are far from valueless mass produced items; a limited edition print artwork direct from the artist can be an incredible investment, with a much lower entry price than an original!