From the fifteenth century to the spread of photography, prints were a type of images, in quantity and in diversity, whose value in term of iconography and dissemination of knowledge has remained unparalleled in the history of art. Made through various techniques, prints represented all sorts of aspirations, interest and human activities. They are an inexhaustible source of historical and visual information, and also, for specialists as well as for collectors and amateurs of art in general, a stimulus for their curiosity. In a sample of prints we can find a whole world to discover: a world of countries, of periods, artists, styles, ideals, forms of beauty and perfection.
Nobody has any doubt about the high level reached in the prints made by Durer, Rembrandt, Piranesi, Tiepolo or Goya. We must not forget that however there are many artists that are not so famous – such as Salader, Goltzius, Müller, Callot, Bosse, Waterloo, della Bella, and many others- who are part of the best European creators of graphic art, authors of pieces that shine with a special light because of their technical virtuosity, their originality, beauty or expressive power. Some of these works are much better that many paintings. However, these facts are not always recognized. The majority of ancient prints are in black and white, it makes them difficult to be understood by those who find it hard to go beyond the decorative effect of colour paint. Nevertheless, the range of effects, and the wealth of nuances that a skilful engraver can reach with only one ink is obvious for any amateur of this art. There may also be a bias by the fact that it is a technique that allows to some extent, (as the plates wear out), lots of nearly identical images. On this point, however, there is a misunderstanding. Images may be very similar, but they are not entirely identical. Many prints can be made from a unique matrix, but above all it is a manual process: the inking, the paper type and, in the end, the printing, make that every image is different for a trained eye.
One question often asked about antique prints – and to which we can only give an approximate answer – is to know how many prints still exist out of all the prints that were made from a plate first time inked three or four hundred years ago. Even if, in a first impression from a copper plate, let us say, in the seventeenth century, two or three hundred items were printed, it is easy to admit that many of them were lost or destroyed over the centuries. This means that the number of prints that have outlived is reduced to only a few items, although it is impossible to know it for sure. Actually the fact that a xylography by Durer has been preserved until today, after being used by who knows how many hands, is not sufficiently appreciated as a small miracle. For specialised literature, a print that is not easy to find in museums and that has been offered less than five times for sale or auction over the last ten years is with reason considered very rare. Are considered very rare, for instance, the etchings by Rembrandt that were printed during the lifetime of the artist and are thought to remain only thirty or fifty copies in the whole world.
The scarcity, therefore, becomes a main factor for the valuation and quote of the prints. Prices are also influenced, and much, by the importance of the author, the subject of the work, the state of conservation, and the timing and quality of printing. One thing, anyways, is almost certain. These pieces of paper ,so fragile and delicate, whose process is so often complex and sophisticated are part of the few works of art made by great artists of the past that a collector today can afford without having such a lot of money.
Professor of Art History
of the University of Barcelona