A Discussion of the Print World with World Printmakers

As our first journal entry in fall 2011, we are presenting an interview by Harris Schrank, the New York Fine Art Print dealer. Mr.Schrank, a long standing advocate of serious exploration into the world of the fine art print, also serves as a trustee of the International Print Center New York (IPCNY).  At the end of his interview you will find Mr. Schrank's contact information and a link to his additional essays.

 

  Harris Schrank

A Discussion of the Print Wo
rld with World Printmakers

 
Q: Please tell us a bit about yourself. How long have you been in the print business? How did you happen to become a fine-art-print dealer?

A: I became a print dealer about 10 years ago, after collecting prints for many years (and after a long run as a practicing sociologist and then a shorter stint as a corporate bureaucrat).

Q: Is there a "standard route" into print dealing-art history degree, apprenticeship in an established business, own shop-or do dealers tend to come from varied background and access routes. Does it run in families?

A: There's no standard route. People from all sorts of backgrounds get caught up in prints - I know one dealer who was a cardiologist and another a pediatrician, any number of lawyers and accountants, a music critic, graphic designer, daughters and sons of dealers. Here and there one finds someone who actually studied art, worked at a gallery, and then became an independent dealer. One would think that would be the conventional route, but it's not that common.

Q: Your discourse seems to center around "connoisseurship." It seems to be about print erudition. Is that a fair assertion? What, from your point of view, are the joys and benefits of knowing a lot about prints, both for collectors and dealers?

A: The more prints you see and study, the more you appreciate. In the contemporary field images and impressions from a single edition tend to be quite alike, in fact that's a usual objective of the printer making an edition. But historically the printmaker - who often was also the artist - was not so concerned with creating a uniform edition as creating different variations upon the same theme. So the artist would change the print through various states, or use different inking and papers, thereby getting different results. Rembrandt approached printmaking in this way, as later did hundreds of artists such as Pissarro and Degas, Whistler and even Picasso. So it's a good idea to know a lot about how these artists worked when examining their prints. And even among the artists who tended to make prints in just a few states, and worked toward a definitive state, connoisseurship is needed to determine which impressions they printed personally, which are earliest or best reflect the intent of the artist.

Q: How does one go about acquiring enough print erudition to be a knowledgeable collector? How much is enough?

A: The basic task is to see lots of examples of the same image. In a good print room like those at the Metropolitan Museum or the National Gallery it's possible to see a number of Durer engravings of Adam and Eve, or Rembrandt's Three Crosses, for example, and see how different they can be in quality, printing approach, inking, paper, etc. Once you've seen a number of impressions of a print you can start to make judgements about a print's quality.

Q: In your experience, roughly what percentage of print collectors take it upon themselves to learn about prints in a serious way? How many of them succeed in becoming true print connoisseurs. Or do most of them leave the question of print connoisseurship to their dealers?

A: In my experience most print collectors are rather serious, and I'd regard quite a number as connoisseurs, but perhaps this is a characteristic of the pre-contemporary print field. Many collectors are fussy about condition, but obsessing about condition shouldn't be confused with connoisseurship. Connoisseurship involves making distinctions among various impressions of the same print, knowing about print techniques, papers, the art historical context, etc. Collectors are wise to work with knowledgeable dealers who can help them locate and select prints, but if they delegate too many matters of connoisseurship they're missing much of the fun of collecting.

Q: How many of your clients "keep coming back for more?" Aside from the obvious monetary question, is it a great satisfaction for a dealer to nurture a client from rank beginner to serious collector?

A: I enjoy working with anyone interested in prints, regardless of their level of sophistication. The learning process is mutual, for often beginners ask good questions which lead me into areas I hadn't considered. Of course I enjoy working with experienced collectors as well, and get some special satisfaction from finding something they haven't seen, or locating a print they've been looking for or that fits well into their collection.

Q: Is it possible to construct a profile of the typical print collector. Or are there several profiles? What do they look like?

A: There are lots of types. Some focus on aesthetic issues, some on periods or art movements; some on a particular artist. Some are condition freaks, some want just lifetime impressions or just signed impressions; others search for pictures of certain things like skulls or boats or early New York scenes. Some people just seem to look for bargains, but they tend to have mediocre collections.

Q: Has your quest for connoisseurship taken you abroad? Is firsthand knowledge from, say, Europe, China or Japan necessary to take the connoisseur to the next level?

A: It's fun to see where an artist worked. I've been to Rembrandt's House in Amsterdam, and James Ensor's in Ostend, Belgium. And it's great to see scenes such as the canals and bridges of Venice that were the subjects of Whistler etchings. But to me the real excitement is just seeing great impressions of great prints, and many of these (the ones I don't own!) can be found in museums or collections nearby.

Q: This brings us to the question of specialization. Presumably it's impossible to be a connoisseur of everything. How important is specialization? I noticed that two of your discussions are devoted to Rembrandt and Goya. Are these two artists your specialties?

A: I love Goya and Rembrandt, and am somewhat conversant with them, but would not say they're a specialty. I find I focus on artists for whom printmaking itself was a specialty, including for example Dürer, Jacques Callot, Van Ostade among the old masters, Camille Pissarro and Jacques Villon among European impressionists and modernists, and among Americans, John Sloan and Reginald Marsh and of course James Whistler. Some dealers and collectors prefer to focus on a single artist, but I find that confining.

Q: What is the role and the importance of auction houses? To what extent has their credibility been eroded by the scandals of recent years. Are auction prices true indicators of the value of fine-art prints?

A: Auction houses are important to the print world, but they can be risky places to buy or sell prints. They sometimes get good prints, especially from estates, but also get problematic prints - the prints dealers and individuals either can't sell or don't want to be associated with when they're sold. Collectors without the resources, time or knowledge to make good judgments among auction offerings are easy prey for the houses. And these days the houses are charging quite a bit - often on both ends - to sell things, so collectors need to be wary of paying too much for so-so quality items. As for the usefulness of auction prices: the huge variability of prints and their auction prices severely limits the value of auction prices as indicators of value. So over-reliance on such records is a bad idea - high prices are too often the result of buyers caught up in an irrational bidding war, and low prices a reflection of low quality offerings. I find that these days - in the old master area especially - many of the finer or rarer impressions don't reach the auction houses, but are sold privately.

Q: While we're on the subject of value, where would you place fine-art prints as investments, say on a scale between General Motors and gold.

A: I've heard people say that these days prints are more blue chip than the traditional blue chips. I also sense that the market for older prints may be more stable than the contemporary market. Lots more might be said about all this but in general I'd encourage people to buy prints because they love them, not as an investment.

Q: On the subject of certificates of authenticity, you have been quoted as saying: "These have been thoroughly discredited in recent years; an inflated-sounding claim of a C of A is often a sign that there is a problem in the wings." Would you care to elaborate on that affirmation a bit? We've been telling artists for years that the C of A is the way to go. Are there different criteria in this matter for contemporary prints and old masters? Isn't a Fine Print Description just a more elaborate C of A? Isn't it just as easy to falsify an FPD as a C of A?

A: An FPD is my own invention; it's just a full description of the print which I sign and date. I suppose it is a C of A without the pretension of the C of A designation. Every week or so I hear from collectors who've overpaid for a print, or bought a print that's not really what it's supposed to be, and they're typically armed with an "official" C of A which is nothing more than a phony marketing device. These C of A's are no substitute for a buyer doing some homework, or buying from a reputable dealer.

Q: With so many con artists afoot these days at every level of the food chain, what possibility do print collectors have to protect themselves from fraud? How should they go about it?

A: Of course the best way to protect themselves is to develop some knowledge about prints, and the prints they're purchasing. I would also encourage collectors to buy from dealers who are members of the International Fine Print Dealers Association (IFPDA). These dealers have gone through a serious vetting process. The IFPDA website (www.printdealers.com) lists the members, and is also a good source of print knowledge, definitions, etc.

Q: In Internet print sales the question of establishing a seller's honesty and inspiring a buyer's confidence, is even trickier. You sell prints over the Web. How do you deal with these issues? What percentage of your sales are via Internet?

A: I rarely buy on the Web and would not generally recommend it. I buy prints in person, and recommend that as the best method. I do sell prints via the Web, and anything I sell I'll purchase back within a reasonable amount of time, so I basically sell prints on approval (as will any reputable dealer). I enjoy presenting prints on eBay (I started with Sothebys.com, which morphed into eBay before it went under), and have met many experts and specialists through that route, but today such sales are less than 5% of my total. I enjoy eBay as a discipline (I show lots of pictures of each print, and create a rather full descriptive entry for each print), and in practice use it more for advertising than sales. I also have a number of print guides displayed on eBay.

Q: You place a great deal of emphasis on the importance of the catalogue raisonne in determining the authenticity of prints, and you are not alone in this respect. Most catalogues raisonnes, if I'm not mistaken, are compiled by art historians after the artists in question have died. Wouldn't it make more sense for the artist herself, or her agent, to create the catalogue as they go along? Wouldn't that information tend to be much more reliable? Having said that, should we encourage serious contemporary printmakers to start preparing their own catalogues raisonees?

A: I suppose you're right that artists should keep good records, but I imagine many artists would probably see that as a distraction (I don't like keeping records myself, and I'm no artist). Many artists have in fact kept extensive records, and these help the compilers of catalogues. For example Albrecht Durer kept an extensive diary in which he details who he gave prints to; and artists such as Camille Pissarro, Reginald Marsh, and Martin Lewis kept detailed notes about their printmaking efforts which helped cataloguers. But many artists are notorious for getting print states, dates and the number of impressions printed wrong (Pissarro and Marsh are good examples), so good cataloguers have to examine everything from scratch whether the artist has kept notes or not.

Q: Many readers of this interview will be fine-art print professionals, print studio people, master printmakers.They are ultimately the ones who advise many of today's printmakers on questions of editions, signing, best practices and print permanence. From the point of view of a print dealer, what comments or advice would you share with them?

A: I'm no expert on contemporary printmaking, but might mention that I've been very impressed with the contemporary prints that have been shown at the International Print Center NY (IPCNY) New Prints shows (there have been about 25 of these exhibits over the past decade). Perhaps those not familiar with this non-profit Print Center and its programs and exhibits might be interested in looking into them. (Disclosure - I'm on the Board of the IPCNY.)

Q: What about editioning inkjet reproductions of paintings, so-called "signed and numbered limited-edition giclee prints?" What do you make of that phenomenon? Or do we just put it down to H.L. Mencken's immortal remark: "Nobody ever went broke...?"

A: When it comes to buying art people often justify their irrational or even inane behaviour by saying they buy "what they like," as if that excuses their mistakes. And in the case of prints, where there's often another example of the print that's earlier, or better (or just genuine), and less expensive to boot, it's infuriating to see people blithely enriching con artists. So I guess old Mencken had a point. But education sources, such as your site, should help people make better choices, so there's always hope.


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Contact information:     www.harrisschrank.com              email:  hschrank@nyc.com        
For Mr. Schrank's essays: http://search.reviews.ebay.com/members/harrisschrank
 

Wed. November 9