Is this a licence to print money?

The material rewards of artistic reproduction can be impressive, says Edmund Tirbutt

It may sound absurd to suggest that most of us can afford to buy a work by Rembrandt or Picasso, but great artists did not confine themselves to oil paintings and watercolours. Many also produced original prints and in some cases these can be bought for only a few hundred pounds.

Printmaking, which can utilise techniques as varied as etching, engraving, woodcutting, linocutting and lithography, can enable artists to boost their incomes by mass production.

Whilst the term "print" in its broadest sense can be used to refer to virtually any image which has been transferred from one surface to another, an "original print" is an image produced from a surface on which the artist has actually worked, such as a stone, wood block or copper plate. The original work of art is the print itself rather than the block or plate - the "matrix" - from which it is printed. Although artists can sometimes make monoprints, typically somewhere between 25 and 100 original prints are produced by each matrix.

Susan Harris, director of Sotheby's print department, says: "There is a common misconception that prints are reproductions, but they are original works in their own right and the artists involved have not necessarily produced paintings on the same subject. Contrary to popular belief, print-making often makes up a significant proportion of an artist's output, although some artists like Picasso, Degas, Warhol and Munch are more influential than others as result of being very experimental. One of the great things about collecting prints is learning about the various techniques."

Original prints spanning five centuries can be viewed at the London Original Print Fair, which finishes tomorrow. The event, which this year is taking place for the first time in the Royal Academy of Art's new space in Burlington Gardens, plays host to over 30 leading print dealers and several print publishers, who commission prints from the artists themselves. Work on display ranges from the 15th-century engravings and woodcuts of Albrecht Dürer and his contemporaries to the most recent work of printmakers such as David Hockney and Damien Hirst.

There is also no shortage of ideas for those keen to spot the next up-and-coming stars. Charles Booth-Clibborn, director of the leading print publisher Paragon Press, waxes lyrical about some of the first prints by two established artists: Paul Morrison, a 38-year-old painter, and Marc Quinn, a 40-year-old sculptor. Both are already in demand from collectors overseas, particularly in the US. Within recent weeks Morrison, whose Black Dahlias portfolio includes 12 separate designs, has sold a print to the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard University for £5,000 and Quinn, who has eight designs in his Winter Garden portfolio, sold a print for £8,000 to the Brooklyn Museum of Art.

Old masters can vary significantly in price according to how many editions were made. It is therefore possible to pay anything from a few hundred to a few hundred thousand pounds for a print by Rembrandt, a highly skilled etcher who produced some of his most memorable images in this medium.

But the bulk of interest from collectors is currently focusing on the 20th and 21st centuries, where artists have tended to produce only a single edition. Modern masters like Picasso, Miro and Chagall are especially sought after, as are pop artists like Warhol and Lichtenstein, who use screen printing.

Someone who invested in a print by Andy Warhol 10 years ago would have probably doubled or trebled their money. Bridget Riley has also seen her work shoot up in value during the last decade. Sets of four prints by her which were selling for under £1,000 six or seven years ago are now fetching more than £10,000.

But there is inevitably a danger that prices from today's stars may be reaching their peak, so some experts hint that there could be superior value in far less expensive artists who could be coming into vogue, like Eduardo Paolozzi, Patrick Caulfield and Graham Sutherland.

Experts also stress that, although the market is currently buoyant, investing in original prints not a one-way bet. In the late 1980s, modern artists like Bernard Buffet were selling prints for huge prices, largely supported by Japanese investors, but demand collapsed and those who bought at the wrong time could have lost three-quarters of their money.

Those who buy abroad have also often come unstuck, with prints by Salvador Dali in particular tending to be overpriced. It is important to buy from a reputable dealer or auction house and, as with any other purchase, to try to be as well-informed as possible.

It is also vital to buy something in good condition. Any doubts in this respect should be fully discussed with the dealer concerned or, if you are buying at auction, you can request a condition report at the viewing before the sale and discuss it with experts.

Alan Cristea, a publisher and dealer specialising in 20th and 21st-century original prints, says: "Never buy a print if it is faded or has brown marks: although acid stains can be restorable for etchings or lithography, they cannot be for screen prints or ink jets. Conservation is all in the framing, so never allow the surface of a print to touch the glass, always use non-acidic board and don't use acidic hinges, because acid seeps into the print and causes brown marks. It is also important to use museum-standard denglass, which ejects ultra-violet rays, because otherwise any sheet of paper gradually yellows and then goes brown."

THE ART OF PRINTMAKING

INTAGLIO PRINTS:

The image is cut into a surface or "plate" (from the Italian intagliare, to cut into). When the plate is inked, the incised lines hold the ink and the image is transferred to paper. The inked lines on the finished surface are often slightly raised and there is a visible line around the image, where the plate has been pressed into the paper, called the "platemark".

Some examples are:

* Engraving. The image is engraved on a metal plate with a sharp tool called a "burin".

* Etching. The plate is covered in an acid-resistant layer of wax called an "etching ground". The image is then drawn into this surface with an etching needle. When covered with printing ink the lines hold the ink.

* Drypoint. As in an engraving, the "drypoint needle" draws the image on the plate. The residue metal is left beside the etched lines, which then collect the ink, creating a furry effect called "burr".

* Aquatint. The plate is covered with rains of resin called an "aquatint ground", allowing acid to bite into the area, creating a grainy, tonal effect.

* Mezzotint. The whole plate is worked with a "rocker", creating a rough surface which will hold ink and produce a black, velvety effect. A second tool is used to "burnish out" areas intended to be white in the final image.

Relief Prints. These are prints where the areas around the image to be printed are cut away, leaving the image on the block. These raised areas are inked and transferred on to a second surface.

LITHOGRAPHY:

Unlike intaglio and relief processes, which involve cutting into the plate, the image is drawn in a greasy substance on to a lithographic stone. The stone is dampened with water; the printing ink adheres to the drawing.

FACT FILE: ARTISTS TO WATCH

Experts warn that the best way of making sure prints at least maintain their value is either to buy something new from a contemporary artist at its first price or, if you can afford it, to go for a top-grade print by a well-known artist.

Unfortunately not everyone can afford something like Burning Weeds by Vincent Van Gogh, an extremely rare transfer lithograph which sold at auction for £252,000 at Sotheby's last December.

But visitors to the London Original Print Fair who have £500 to £1,000 to spend will find that artists within their reach include Julian Opie, one of the most popular contemporary printmakers. Opie, who covers all genres, is in huge demand from museums and private collectors but is hard to find at auction.

Another contemporary artist to watch out for in the same price range is Stephen Conroy (Figure study 1, 2002, above right) who has a lot of loyal clients and always seems to sell well. He is a dedicated printmaker, producing monoprints, etchings and lithographs regularly. Because he is a very fine draughtsman his work translates particularly well into print.

More serious investors will undoubtedly be eyeing up Lucian Freud, one of the most highly regarded living artists, who only produces small editions and can sell for anything between £5,000 and £50,000. Like Rembrandt, he is an etcher who uses very traditional techniques but, although no one would dispute his technical excellence, his work is not that colourful. Some experts suggest that his prices are starting to seem expensive.

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