Money: Prints charming

Forget Picasso. Investing in a contemporary artist's work can pay off, writes John Windsor
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The Independent Online
Alan Cristea, one of 24 exhibitors at next week's London Original Print Fair at the Royal Academy, not only deals in artists' prints but also publishes them. Last year he published more than 40 editions by 11 living artists.

There is a lot of money riding on them. At any one time, he has pounds 500,000 laid out on publication costs. So visitors to his friendly Cork Street gallery can expect to see a frown cross his face if they ask him to tip winners. After all, he has backed every one with his own money, his own passion. To him, every one is a winner.

That is the difference between investing in a living artist's painting offered by a dealer and investing in a living artist's print offered by its publisher. The dealer may not own the painting and can return it unsold to the artist with a shrug and regrets. But the publisher has paid for the prints. If you buy one, you are buying into his vision, his confidence in the artist - and sharing some of the risk he has taken.

Cristea has sunk up to pounds 100,000 in seven editions of prints and a livre d'artiste, titled Book, by Michael Craig-Martin, professor of fine art at Goldsmiths College, hitherto best known as tutor to Goldsmiths' flamboyant Hirst generation. (Unless you count his glass of water on a shelf, which, back in 1973, he insisted was An Oak Tree.)

Craig-Martin has made few prints, so the collection, in Cristea's gallery and to be shown at the fair, represents an entire oeuvre. The project has taken more than a year of "endless playing about with colour", according to Cristea.

The artist's paintings of similar images - precisely defined, child-like household objects such as a ladder, a bucket, a pair of shoes, plonked into bright, monochrome backgrounds - are for sale at the Waddington Galleries, over the road from Cristea.

Cristea's boxed 10-page Book, in an edition of 50, costs pounds 4,000 each, which includes 10 identical loose prints. In an edition of 100, the 10 prints are priced at pounds 900. Least expensive are single-print editions at pounds 500.

"It's an untried market," says Cristea. "There's no way of knowing whether they are going to appeal."

For him, there is no such thing as market research, no such thing as a safe investment. "In publishing contemporary prints," he says, "you are trying to create a market. First you get the prints, then you get the clientele." But he is prospering. "It's a matter of persistence," he explains.

Of Craig-Martin, he says: "He does have a reputation as a painter but not as a print-maker. So in a sense, I'm doing this blind, except for my belief in him as an artist. His prints have such an impact. They question the way we see objects while at the same time creating art."

It could be more than a decade before current work by print-makers in the Cristea stable command prices at auction higher than their retail price, with the exception of the increasingly popular Howard Hodgkin.

But for the astute print buyer there is a bonus not available to buyers of one-off artworks: as stocks of an edition dwindle, the publisher raises the price, which means that all prints sold previously automatically acquire the higher value. (If the edition sticks, so does the price.)

For example, Waddington Graphics' 1986 portfolio of 12 woodcuts by the Italian artist Mimmo Paladino, in an edition of 42, had an opening price of pounds 3,000. They sold the last one for pounds 12,000.

"I can't predict the future," says Cristea, "but I will say this: look for prints by top-rate artists that are brand new - that is, when the publisher's price is at its lowest."

A price that has appreciated is an advantage to a client wanting to trade with the dealer, perhaps exchanging several prints he has bought from him for a more expensive one that he could not afford earlier.

Cristea, 49, managed Waddington Graphics for 22 years before buying the firm two years ago, and with it the exclusive publishing of Paladino. His gallery's total stock is now 11,000 prints.

Paladino's latest edition is sensational: 40 sets of five round prints, representing the five continents, that are a massive 5ft 9in in diameter. They combine woodcut, etching, collage and drypoint and cost pounds 3,000 per print or pounds 12,500 a set. Each frame cost Cristea pounds 1,400, each disc of non- reflective glass pounds 1,000.

Cristea says: "He's a natural and brilliant print-maker. There's no painting of his anything like these prints." Even Paladino prints can stick, however. Only three have sold from the edition of 28 of his massive, difficult, splodgy triptych Vespero, Poeta Occidentale, Sirene (1995): priced at pounds 6,000.

Cristea's response is: "I don't regret it. It's absolutely beautiful. The thing is, if you're committed to an artist, you don't say to him, `I'll only take the commercial stuff'. I'm not just publishing what people want. I'm publishing what they'll want in years to come.

"People sometimes come back years later and ask me for prints that they didn't like at the time. Maybe that is what Paladino is doing - making things that people will accept 20 years from now. But I always knew the triptych would be difficult. That is why I decided to print an edition of only 28."

He estimates that for every person asking for prints by Craig-Martin, 100 will ask for Picasso and Matisse prints, which are his bread and butter. His accountant would prefer him to stick to Picasso and Matisse, which he could sell blindfold, so to speak, from a cheap-to-run office instead of a gallery with a staff of eight that costs him pounds 12,000 a week.

"But then I wouldn't be doing anything creative, wouldn't have any self- respect, wouldn't enjoy the job and wouldn't know what to spend the money on," says Cristea.

Prices at specialist fairs, unlike big art and antiques fairs, tend to be competitive. At the London Original Print Fair, the range is from pounds 50 to pounds 100,000.

The fair is open daily from 27 February to 2 March (11am-6pm) at the Royal Academy of Arts, Piccadilly, London W1. The entry fee of pounds 5 includes a catalogue (0118-932 0960).

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