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Old And Sold Antiques Digest Article

Print Collecting - Familiar Marks, Margins, Proofs, Bookplates, Prices

( Originally Published 1932 )



It is necessary, before proceeding farther, to know the difference between a print and an engraving so that when these terms are used they will be perfectly understood. The difference represents one of the basic principles of the art, and unless one can talk intelligently on the variances of technical terms it will only serve to create an embarrassment which otherwise could be avoided.

In the popular vernacular, a print is any colored picture that has obviously been printed off rather than executed by hand, as in the case of a real painting. The process for this type of engraving is the same as for the copper plate engraving, except that in this case the print is done from a number of plates. Each plate has on it that part of the drawing which is to be printed in a particular color, and is inked with the color desired. The sheet of paper is run through the press, this being done as many times as there are colors, the plate being changed each time.

An engraving is usually done upon a copper plate. The section of the engraved lines resembles a V cut. The depth of the cut and the size of the tool (graver) give the strength of the printed line. The engraver creates what is known as line engraving by holding his burin or tool almost flat against the plate, pushing it forward as he patterns out his design. It is interesting to note that most of our paper money is printed from steel plates and that, for engraving, artists are more in favor of copper than steel, because of its softer quality.

Another form of engraving made use of by fine artists and which results in an unusual richness, is stipple engraving. This is a process produced by varied and irregular dots all going to make up the design. When the plate is finished it is placed in an acid bath and a stopping out process, with the use of varnish, is similarly accomplished as in the etching. Engraving in stipple is an unusually slow process but, extraordinarily enough, lends itself to the finest work and also to printing in color on vellum. Subjects such as mini atures and delicate drawings are often stippled by the graver alone, minus the acid bath. This produces a very delicate result.

On most engravings in the lower right hand corner one finds the name of the engraver and in the lower left hand corner the name of the painter. The fact that there are two names on the engraving shows that the subject matter was taken from some picture of the painter, but that it was engraved upon the plate by the man whose name appears in the extreme right hand corner. In other words, it is not an original engraving. In this respect we may divide prints into two classes, original and interpretive. An interpretive or reproductive print is a copy by its author from the painting or work of somebody else. While showing great technical ability, on the part of the author, an interpretive print cannot be called a work of art in the highest sense of the word as it lacks the creative force behind it. An original print is one created in thought and executed by the artist himself, and is as much an original work of art as a painting or drawing. The fact that there may be several prints of the same engraving in existence does not make any one of them less original. Each is complete unto itself in content and execution.

A most interesting comparison may be had when we look at the works of the world's greatest artists. Who could possibly get the same results from the "Mona Lisa" as Leonardo da Vinci, or who could possibly effect the same monstrous feeling as Rembrandt did in the "Hundred Guilder" print, so-called from the circumstance of its having, in the lifetime of the artist, been sold for that sum which is equivalent to about forty-eight dollars of our money? It is interesting to note that after some impressions were taken from this plate, Rembrandt added a few additional lines in one part, and thus occasioned the distinction, now become of great importance, of a first and second state of the plate. Of the first state, that namely without these additional lines, eight impressions and no more are known to exist. In 1809 one of these first states, on India paper, sold for 41 9s 6d. In 1840 the same print brought 23i. To-day, in the Metropolitan Museum (the Havemeyer collection), there is an impression of the second state, which is less valuable than the first state, appraised at $20,000. This is considered by no means a high price. Indeed, with regard to a print of this class, it is difficult to say what price is too high, for the bidder is buying great rarity combined with great excel lence. Of the eight first states known to exist, five have moved out of the market,-have taken the veil, as it were, and are locked up in places whence there is no deliverance; two being in the British Museum, one in the Imperial Library at Vienna, one in the Royal collection at Amsterdam and one in the Royal Library at Paris.

Independent of rarity, this print is inestimable as a work of art. It is a specimen of the artist's illimitable ability in copper which, of itself alone, justifies the remark that has been made that Rembrandt's etchings are the rivals of his pictures. He was as skilled with his needle as with his brush.

It is not mere rarity which raises this print to so high a value. The intrinsic excellence and beauty of it also have their part in the enhancement. This is shown by the fact that even in the second state the "One Hundred Guilder" is a print commanding a high price. In 1835 a fine impression in this, its second state, was bought for 163 16s.

An impression from this plate as finished, is occasionally seen which approaches very near, and is perhaps quite equal in effect, to these rare first states, and indeed this may well be the case for no one will pretend to believe that there can be any possible difference between the last proof impression and the first impression after proofs; and again, although the first states are generally on India paper, many connoisseurs are of the opinion that the "One Hundred Guilder" is a print which shows better on the plain paper. Like most of Rembrandt's etchings the tone is kept so low that the still further lowering produced by the tone of India paper impairs rather than improves the effect. For such beauty and such perfection of art as are displayed in this exquisite print, or we might almost say picture, a collector of real taste will not consider any price too high which he can afford to pay.

I do not wish to confuse readers by saying that actual merit is the only criterion of future price. Rarity does play a tremendous part in determining whether or not a collector will pay a certain fabulous sum. In proof of that might be mentioned the fact that Rembrandt, in a mood of sudden fancy to immortalize a little dog lying asleep, suddenly made an etching of the animal without regard to the size or shape of the copper plate at hand, and, as it happened to be a great deal larger than was necessary, he sketched his subject in the left hand corner of the plate, working in that part only. When he proceeded to take an impression, it happened that he selected a piece of paper of more than sufficient size, but of less size than the whole copper,-the result of which was that in the print no plate mark appears, that is, no mark of the edge of the copper except on the top and right hand.

Afterwards Rembrandt cut from the large plate, the small, square corner on which he made his etching and from this new reduced plate the subsequent impressions were taken. The work itself has no great attraction. It is imperfectly bit and very feeble in effect. It is not quite 3 1/4 long and 1 1/2, wide, but, whether fortunately or unfortunately, there does happen to exist one impression taken from the copper plate before it was cut and this measures 4 1/2 x 2 1/2 " wide. This was sold at auction in 1809. When the collection into which it was put was finally disposed of, among a number of more truly valuable prints selected from the portfolios and bought for the British Museum, this curiosity, so to call it, passed to the National Repository at the price of 12 0.; and the present worthy curator of the Print Room will show to his visitors a twenty shilling print on one hundred pounds' worth of blank paper, all in the space of three or four inches.

Such indeed is the proper deposit for it, since the pursuit of art is of a more general nature as in the case of a National Museum, which seeks to possess not only what is excellent but also what, though devoid of intrinsic excellence, nevertheless is rare and curious. It is well for the public that it has long since been removed from further price competition. Turning to the subject of collectors' marks, indicating proprietorship, it is necessary to mention that a print is a thing easily stolen. There are some of a very high value which are nevertheless so small that they might lie in the crown of a hat, or even in the palm of the hand. The idea, therefore, of marking prints in sufficient manner to identify them if stolen would suggest itself as precautionary.

Somewhat similar is the bookplate, adopted by the collectors, which is hardly removable. During recent years many collections have come under the auctioneer's hammer wherein each print was clearly marked by an identification. In some instances it served to create an opinion, rightly so, that each impression in the collection was a fine one; in other words, giving the status the same prestige as the mention of the name of Morgan in finance. Of these marks, some are in manuscript, others impressed with a metal stamp, others with a wooden block. And too often, most of these marks appear in conspicuous parts of the print. This barbarous custom has disfigured very many fine and rare impressions.

By means of these marks of proprietorship the transmission of an identical impression may sometimes be traced for a considerable period of time. The fine impression on India paper of the first state of Rembrandt's print of "Christ Presented to the People" has upon it the records of proprietorship for nearly a century. At the back of it is the autograph of Pierre Remy, with the date 1749. On the front appears the autograph of Sir Jacob Astly, whose collection was sold in 1760. Next appears the mark of Sir Joshua Reynolds who died in 1792. From Sir Joshua this print passed to the late Duke of Buckingham.

For posterity's sake it can hardly be urged that this practice be wholly discontinued.

Another point which has often confused many people is the very elastic problem of collecting extensively the entire works of any favorite artist, and whether to collect all the varieties of states of his different prints. This controversy, which most certainly does exist, can be simplified by yielding to a definite program. As the principal prints are obtained and as more and more accumulate and the collection begins to deserve a reputation, there may arise a very strong temptation to make it complete. From this grows an ambition to rank among brother collectors as pre-eminent above all others for the excellence and completeness of the specimens of some one favorite artist. Divesting oneself of this temptation, and considering this subject according to the dictates of common sense, there certainly appear several reasons against yielding to it.

First, there are very few artists whose works are worthy of their hands; second, there occur occasionally, in the works of the finest engravers, prints that are highly objectionable on account of the indelicacy of the subject. They are wholly inadmissible into a portfolio which is ever accessible. There are some one or more prints of nearly every important master which are of very moderate value when estimated on their intrinsic merits, or for their beauty, and yet which bring an exceedingly high price by reason of the accidental quality of being very rare. They are certainly not worth anything like the prices they bring whenever they do happen to make their appearance, were it not for the fancy of making the collection complete. Lastly arises the perplexing question whether to draw any and what line, respecting states.

If the collector has made up his mind to devote his time and efforts in completing his collection of one man, he must certainly include each state of each print. In speaking of states and collectors the name of Rembrandt stands out as the most prominent artist involved in this subject. Not content with taking one or two impressions from his plate, as his work approached completion, Rembrandt began to do this at a very early stage, sometimes before the subject was half finished. He would then work on and after awhile take a few more proofs. It has often been said that Rembrandt availed himself rather unworthily of the favors extended him by his patrons and made alterations for the mere sake of multiplying varieties and for which he had immediate customers although these alterations were frequently, as may well be imagined, no improvement to his work but rather detrimental to it. This is probably one reason why so many of Rembrandt's plates have been left in a more or less unfinished state. Even today, amongst some of the finest draughtsmen, there is a tendency to create a false market by bringing forth states which in themselves are expensive and tend to quicken the pulse of the ordinary buyer, at the mere mention of the price. It is a certainty that a mere amateur would rather be appealed to by one print,-that being the most beautiful impression drawn from the plate. Is it not finer to display the one than to show a "hydra-sheet" with ten or twelve rarities?

A very grave question will now present itself, since our problem is nearly half covered. How should I begin a collection? This momentous phase has already been passed over but it is a point which must be stressed, clearly, again and again in order to create an impression. We will suppose that our would-be collector has not any predilection for any one or another particular subject, or class, or towards any one or another particular artist; and that he has not as yet knowledge or acquaintance with art sufficiently to have given him any such bias, but that he is simply starting to acquire a small collection. In these circumstances, if he is a person of common sense and prudence, two inquiries will at the commencement of the subject, present themselves to him. First, what is the most judicious mode of setting to work, and second, the probable extent of the expenses for that upon which he is embarking. It is by no means impossible to give a fair estimate of the price at which a respectable collec tion-if the nature and extent of it be well determined-may be on an average obtained. A good plan would be to make chronology the principal of any collection, to make no sub-divisions into schools at least in the beginning, but to select from all schools indifferently specimens of the great masters as they arose in order of time and thus to display the progress of the art from its commencement to the present time.

There is one other solution which might be applicable to a hopeful collector. Would it not be a good idea to devote one's time and study to the problem just mentioned and one's purse to the modern masters, if that word is not abused? Today we have some fifteen or twenty very fine etchers. Who knows what the future holds for them? As the years go on should their work steadily improve perhaps some diligent collector may be showing to his grandchildren a collection that in his day was considered good but not of great importance.

The comparison is similar to the difference in years between Whistler and Rembrandt. Only a short while ago the lithographs of George Bellows (1882-1925), were selling for an average of twelve dollars,-the etchings of Joseph Pennell (1859-1928) were selling for sixteen dollars. Arthur B. Davies (1862-1931), whose reputation grew a thousand times the year after his death, was selling his works for about the same price.

The inequalities of the various states and the preponderances not acceptable to the general public, in attempting to strengthen the market prices, are the actual gleanings from this chapter. It rests in your hands as to whether or not you consider it a problem which will show itself up in a most heinous fashion. If these facts are not carefully studied it is possible to lose hundreds of dollars through carelessness, anxiety and lust.



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