Buying and Selling Collectibles: Prints and Lithographs

About the hobby of collecting, buying, and selling old and used items for fun and profit, in this case prints and lithographs

Prints. Prints used to be called "art for the poor"--imitation pictures for people who couldn't afford oil paintings. But those executed by certain Old Masters and popular modern artists are for the poor no more. Recent auction-sale prices have included $4,250 for Piranesi's View of the Interior of the So-Called Temple of Neptune at Paestum, an etching; $20,000 for Mantegna's Bacchanale with Silenus (engraving); and $55,000 for Rembrandt's portrait of an elderly goldsmith named Jan Lutma, an etching and drypoint. Among modern artists, engravings by Joan Miro sell mainly in the $600-$3,000 range. Many of Picasso's are in that neighborhood, but some go much higher.

The lithography firm of Currier & Ives was in business from 1835 to 1906, in the lower Manhattan area of New York City. It published prints of every description: portraits of George Washington, views of steamships cruising the Mississippi, hunting scenes, skaters on a frozen Central Park lake, Barnum's American Museum the day after it burned down.

There's a mystique about Currier & Ives, and 2 mistaken schools of thought about the value of their prints. Some people believe all are worthless, as they were printed in such large numbers; others think the name "Currier & Ives" on a print guarantees a big sale price, regardless of subject. Some of the firm's output is rare; but many of its prints can be had for less than $10. The subject matter counts: Most of the cheaper specimens are just portraits and religious scenes. But size also is important. C & I used 3 standard sizes for its prints: 7 3/4" by 13", 13" by 20", and 20" by 27", not including margins. Though some of the smaller-sized works are valuable, nearly all of the largest prints are worth $1,000 and more.

Among the most valuable are:

--Trout Fishing on Chateaugay Lake, 1856, $1,250

--Grand Match for the Base-Ball Championship, 1862, $3,750

--Clipper Ship 'Hurricane', 1852, $3,750

--The Express Train, 1859, $2,600

--Happy Family--Ruffed Grouse and Young, 1866, $4,600

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