The Who, What, Why of Fine Prints

The originality of a painting is not hard to understand. An artist puts brush to canvas and makes a single work of art. Prints, on the other hand, can be confusing. Doesn't "print" mean it's a copy of something else? Isn't that the kind of thing you buy at a museum gift shop and put on your dorm room wall?

In a word, no. Our Important Fall Auction includes original prints by some of the most collectible artists who have worked in the medium. And so we are taking the opportunity to talk to Leland Little Prints & Multiples Director Lauren Sanford about everything we ever wanted to know about fine prints but were too afraid to ask.

1) What is a print? What is a multiple?

A print is a work of art that can be multiplied. This is usually on paper, but can sometimes be in three dimensions (known as multiples). There are many types of prints, and the creation of each requires a laboriously technical process, an artistic skill in and of itself. Like so many art forms, printmaking is sometimes collaborative, the artist working in conjunction with a printer and publisher.

2) Is a print or multiple "original?"

There are two broad categories of prints: fine prints and reproduction prints. Fine prints are original works that can be made more than once. Each pulling of the print is referred to as an "impression" and is considered an original work in its own right. There can sometimes be differences in the way the artist finishes each impression. These fine prints are what we focus on at Leland Little, and, as a general rule, what you should look for to collect. Reproduction prints actually are mechanically-produced copies of other originals, and are far less valuable.

alt Keith Haring (American, 1958-1990), Pop Shop II, One Plate

3) How do you know if a print is authentic?
There are various steps a print specialist takes in authenticating an original print. These involve assessing the printed surface and ink itself, looking at the paper, examining signatures and markings, noting blindstamps and watermarks, and other physical properties. The provenance - meaning the history of the print's ownership – is also important in determining that a print is “right and good.” There are other factors that go into authentication, but these are the major initial steps. At Leland Little Auctions, we aim to provide all the information bidders need to have confidence in a print's authenticity.

altWayne Thiebaud (American, born 1920), Hotel Corner

4) Why would someone decide to collect fine prints?
Because artists make prints as original works, they are intended as fine art and very much worth collecting. But since prints are one impression of an edition, they can often be purchased for less than other original works of art. Always wanted a Whistler, Picasso, or Rauschenberg? Their paintings or drawings may be out of reach, but an original print, while still an investment, might be more attainable. And because prints often have such rich colors and strong lines, they are sometimes mistaken for drawings or paintings once they are on the wall. What people don't know won't hurt them. It can also be exciting to know that you have just one impression of a print - a little research can turn up where the other sister prints have landed around the world, sometimes in major private collections or museums.

altHelen Frankenthaler (American, 1928-2011), Sudden Snow

5) How does photography relate to printmaking?
Printmaking and photography are distinctly different categories, but they are cousins of sorts. Though different concepts, there are overlapping traits between the two – in photography, because multiple photographs can be printed from a single negative, there is often a series in the same way that there is in printmaking. In our Important Fall Auction we’re offering a 1970s printing of Ansel Adams’ Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico. This rare and special photograph is exemplary of Adams’ work and one of his most iconic images.

altAnsel Adams (American, 1902-1984), Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico

6) Which artists' prints are the most collectible?
This sale happens to feature prints by some of the most collectible 19th- and 20th-century artists on the market. From the 19th century, we have rare prints by Albert Bierstadt and James Abbott McNeill Whistler. And from the 20th century, we have prints by a roster of some of the most famous artists of the era, including Andy Warhol, Pablo Picasso, Claes Oldenberg, Robert Rauschenberg, Helen Frankenthaler, Keith Haring, Wayne Thiebaud, and more.

altAlbert Bierstadt (American, 1830-1902), The Rocky Mountains, Lander's Peak

altRobert Rauschenberg (American, 1925-2008), Untitled from Shirtboards, Morocco, Italy '52 Portfolio

We are also offering beautiful prints by some of the most significant North Carolina artists including Maud Gatewood, Claude Howell, and photography by Bayard Wootten.

altMaud Gatewood (NC, 1934-2004), Garage Nestling in Moonlight

More questions about prints and printmaking? At Leland Little, we are able to provide boutique service to ensure all your collecting questions are answered. We feature fine prints in all of our auctions throughout the year, with styles and genres to suit a variety of tastes, making Leland Little the ideal place to start, or grow, a collection of fine prints.

View the Important Fall Auction Catalogue

Content created by the Leland Little editorial team in conjunction with Prints & Multiples Director Lauren Sanford