Published guides chart murky water of print prices


Have a print by Audubon, Picasso, Hockney or Whistler and want to know what it's worth? Wondering about the going rates for Warhol, Rembrandt or Currier & Ives prints? Readers write to me all the time with such questions.

Generally I look at recent auction estimates and results, and then check with dealers around the country about what they are asking, or recently were paid, for similar prints. But how do

dealers and auctioneers determine their estimates in the first place? The answer is simple: from experience and from print price guides.

While these books are geared for the trade, understanding how they're assembled and used can help you better navigate the murky waters of the print market, whether you're buying at an auction or a shop, considering selling a print stashed in a closet or hanging on the wall, or updating your homeowner's insurance.

Unlike unique paintings or antique furniture, prints by definition are multiples, lending themselves easily to price guide listings without illustrations. Many prints are signed and titled; there's often proof of the publication date and size of editions of works by major artists; variations in paper used, image size or condition can be noted uniformly; there's a long-established international market for many prints; and, with computers and today's high-speed communications, prices can be gathered and charted easily if you know what you're doing.

W. Graham Arader III, a dealer specializing in Audubons, botanicals and historical American prints who paid some record prices at auction in recent years and has ritzy shops in New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, San Francisco and Houston, claims he doesn't look at price guides. "I know what a print is worth when I see it. I am the market," he declared.

However, chances are a dealer or auctioneer pricing a print will check the figures listed in Gordon's Print Price Annual 1992 (Martin Gordon Inc., Naples, Fla., $185), an easy-to-use hardcover the size of a big-city telephone book, listing prices for almost 33,000 prints sold at about 300 auctions worldwide during the prior calendar year. There's a list of auction houses, and the next edition will include a directory of dealers. Gordon's entries are arranged by artist, giving the full title, size, sale date and lot number of each print and the price in the local currency where it was sold (there's a handy conversion chart to dollars). If a print failed to sell at the auction, its pre-sale estimate is given.

"I use Gordon's as a first index," said Susan Pinsky, head of the print department at Sotheby's auction house in New York. "Then, I look further and I usually go back to the original auction catalog to check condition and to the artist's catalog raisonne to check details and make sure there are no mistakes."

Competition for Gordon's

Martin Gordon, a print dealer for 30 years, began compiling the data in 1977 while trying to determine what to pay for an obscure print by Paul Gauguin, the famous French post-impressionist. Mr. Gordon recalls spending 4 1/2 hours leafing through 20 years of catalogs to get a sense of the print's rarity. "When I gave up and didn't find it, I thought how nice it would be to have all this information in one book." He published his first guide in 1978, with 13,000 listings.

Until recently Gordon's annual editions have had no competition. Now, other general and specialized guides are appearing. Why so many? "It is the old Yankee competitive spirit," said dealer Peter Hastings Falk, editor of Print Price Index '92 (Sound View Press, $149), which debuted in November. This fall, Auction Index Inc. will introduce Leonard's Annual Price Index of Prints, Posters & Photographs, edited by Susan Theran.

Mr. Falk's book, geared to general antiques dealers who buy estates, includes prices from specialized print sales held at major international auctions along with broader sales at small auction houses. Several specialized indices to the 32,000 entries can assist inexperienced users. Mr. Falk says his larger and more accurate second edition, available by October, will include gallery price ranges.

Already covering retail prices (those asked, not necessarily attained) gathered from dealers' catalogs and stock lists, including many lower-priced prints rarely appearing at auction, is Lawrence's Dealer Print Prices 1992 (Long & Strider Press, $79), edited by Lawrence L. Mehren II. Sources wanted their identities private, so prices are listed without attribution. Some low-priced dealers apparently use Mr. Lawrence's guide to prove they undersell the market.

Contemporary print guides

Among the specialized guides is Selma Smith's Printworld Directory, Contemporary Prints and Prices, Fifth Edition (Printworld International Inc., $225), listing current retail prices of about 40,000 limited edition contemporary prints. One caution: Ms. Smith's prices can be deceptive; despite large prices swings during 1990 to 1991, when the market was in a free fall, she included just the period's top prices, optimistically believing that the prints "will probably reach their highs again in the near future."

Not as comprehensive, but handy, is Contemporary Print Portfolio, Second Edition, 1990 (Bon A Tirer Publishing), edited by Joseph E. Zanatta. Mr. Zanatta didn't produce a 1991 guide because of the market's instability, but the forthcoming 1992 edition ($39.95) will include five years of comparative prices and more than 5,000 prints by 500 artists.

Currier's Price Guide to American and European Prints at Auction, Second Edition (Currier Publications, $18.95) gives general price ranges for 2,500 artists, but without individual print titles or prices, its usefulness is limited. More helpful is Currier's Price Guide to Currier & Ives Prints, Second Edition ($18.95), listing over 6,000 specific Currier & Ives titles, with sizes, reference numbers and retail prices.

Price guides don't have all the answers and can't replace an expert's hands-on evaluation of an individual print, particularly to see if it's authentic. Nevertheless, dealers find them indispensable. Said Joseph Goddu, head of the American print department at Hirschl & Adler, a major New York City art gallery, "When someone walks in to sell me something I consult a guide."

High-tech guides

Competition apparently encouraged Mr. Gordon to introduce new products including Gordon's Print Index, an abbreviated $98 version of his tome, and a palm-size Electronic Book, with a disk giving instant access to 13 years of auction prices, costing about $800. Next year he'll sell an updatable Print-Disc for CD-ROM compatible computers, featuring images of the prints along with price histories.

Following the market

Tracking print prices has gotten complex. Dealers used to be the primary buyers at auction, so auction results generally were regarded as wholesale prices. Collectors bought from dealers at retail prices, marked-up from what the dealer paid. That simple system changed in the 1980s, when collectors starting battling dealers in auction rooms, dramatically boosting prices, converting the wholesale arena into a retail marketplace, and sending dealers back to their galleries to re-price inventory.

Prices also skyrocketed in the 1980s thanks to a booming economy, aggressive marketing, widening interest in art collecting, deep-pocketed corporate collectors and some unscrupulous print scam operators. And, as prices for impressionist and contemporary paintings soared, many collectors turned to comparably inexpensive (but ever more costly) prints by the same popular artists.

In the last few years, the highly speculative contemporary print market collapsed just as painting prices plummeted. Prints by contemporary artists such as Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg now sell at about their 1987 and 1988 prices, around a third to one-half of their 1989 to 1990 highs.

Most print price guides aren't stocked in book stores but can be ordered from their publishers or art reference book dealers including: Art Book Services Inc., P.O. Box 360, Hughsonville, N.Y. 12537, (800) 247-9955, and Dealer's Choice Books Inc., P.O. Box 710, Dept. 4, Land O'Lakes, Fla. 34639, (800) 238-8288.

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