Licence to print money

Forget the old poster you bought at Athena. Limited edition prints from well-known artists look superb and have genuine investment value

Owning an original piece of artwork by Picasso or Toulouse-Lautrec, Damien Hirst or David Hockney is likely to be beyond most people's budgets - or is it? Canny art lovers are buying original prints from top modern artists who are not only fantastic to own, but are also rising rapidly in value.

Owning an original piece of artwork by Picasso or Toulouse-Lautrec, Damien Hirst or David Hockney is likely to be beyond most people's budgets - or is it? Canny art lovers are buying original prints from top modern artists who are not only fantastic to own, but are also rising rapidly in value.

Most of the major auction houses now hold dedicated sales and this weekend, London's Royal Academy will host the largest original print fair in Europe.

First things first, however. 'Print' does not mean a poster reproduction of a great painting. "We use the term 'fine art prints', meaning the artist has chosen a particular medium such as etching or lithograph, because of the aesthetic properties it brings to the final product," explains Murray Macaulay, Christie's 20th-century print specialist.

"We don't sell reproductions: the artist has either drawn directly onto the etching plates or the lithograph stone; they're unique in the sense the image doesn't exist as a painting, though they are created in a set edition size."

A print can be in various forms - including etching, silk screen, lithograph or wood cut - but it is an original work of art which has involved the artist. To be of value, modern prints must be numbered limited editions and signed by the artist. Print runs are almost always in the low hundreds.

Don't be caught out by jargon. An offset lithograph is not an original print - it's a photographic image of an original which is reproduced on a printing press.

The old masters were producing prints as early as the 1600s - Rembrandt was a renowned etcher. The modern market already boasts many iconic examples, such as the screen prints of Marilyn Monroe by Andy Warhol. These were produced in limited editions and sell for tens of thousands of pounds. Picasso was also prolific.

What or whom you buy depends on your taste, but hot modern British names at the moment include Barbara Hepworth, Patrick Heron and Bridget Riley.

"Bridget Riley was selling for £400 to £500 six or seven years ago," says Bonhams print specialist Alexandra Gill. "We're now selling her for up to £8,000 and prices continue to rise."

Gill says the print market is increasingly strong. "There has been a strong increase in the past couple of years, to the point that we now have specialist modern and contemporary print sales," she says.

Even so, you can still pick up a Barbara Hepworth print for £1,000 or a Patrick Heron for about £2,500. Names such as Lucian Freud tend to push up the cost to about £5,000-£6,000, but compare that with the cost of an oil painting. In Freud's case, his top price is above £4m.

"The most important thing to look for is an artist who is established or beginning to be established in the oil field," says Gill. "Then make sure the print is in absolutely perfect condition."

Macaulay adds: "Condition is critical because prints are often on paper - look out for water staining or foxing, a fungus that grows on paper. It's also important that a print is signed."

From an investment perspective, always buy the best you can afford rather than two less expensive options, as this will hold its value better.

After buying your print, protect your investment by having it framed or stored in acid-free paper/board. If the print is displayed, never put it up in direct sunlight.

Prints are original works of art which, although not completely unique, are very limited in number.

If there is a modern artist whose work you love and you buy wisely, it could turn out to be an attractive nest egg.

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