Published guides chart murky water of print prices


August 09, 1992|By Lita Solis-Cohen | Lita Solis-Cohen,Solis-Cohen Enterprises

Have a print by Audubon, Picasso, Hockney or Whistler and want to know what it's worth? Wondering about the going rates for Warhol, Rembrandt or Currier & Ives prints? Readers write to me all the time with such questions.

Generally I look at recent auction estimates and results, and then check with dealers around the country about what they are asking, or recently were paid, for similar prints. But how do

dealers and auctioneers determine their estimates in the first place? The answer is simple: from experience and from print price guides.

While these books are geared for the trade, understanding how they're assembled and used can help you better navigate the murky waters of the print market, whether you're buying at an auction or a shop, considering selling a print stashed in a closet or hanging on the wall, or updating your homeowner's insurance.

Unlike unique paintings or antique furniture, prints by definition are multiples, lending themselves easily to price guide listings without illustrations. Many prints are signed and titled; there's often proof of the publication date and size of editions of works by major artists; variations in paper used, image size or condition can be noted uniformly; there's a long-established international market for many prints; and, with computers and today's high-speed communications, prices can be gathered and charted easily if you know what you're doing.

W. Graham Arader III, a dealer specializing in Audubons, botanicals and historical American prints who paid some record prices at auction in recent years and has ritzy shops in New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, San Francisco and Houston, claims he doesn't look at price guides. "I know what a print is worth when I see it. I am the market," he declared.

However, chances are a dealer or auctioneer pricing a print will check the figures listed in Gordon's Print Price Annual 1992 (Martin Gordon Inc., Naples, Fla., $185), an easy-to-use hardcover the size of a big-city telephone book, listing prices for almost 33,000 prints sold at about 300 auctions worldwide during the prior calendar year. There's a list of auction houses, and the next edition will include a directory of dealers. Gordon's entries are arranged by artist, giving the full title, size, sale date and lot number of each print and the price in the local currency where it was sold (there's a handy conversion chart to dollars). If a print failed to sell at the auction, its pre-sale estimate is given.

"I use Gordon's as a first index," said Susan Pinsky, head of the print department at Sotheby's auction house in New York. "Then, I look further and I usually go back to the original auction catalog to check condition and to the artist's catalog raisonne to check details and make sure there are no mistakes."

Competition for Gordon's

Martin Gordon, a print dealer for 30 years, began compiling the data in 1977 while trying to determine what to pay for an obscure print by Paul Gauguin, the famous French post-impressionist. Mr. Gordon recalls spending 4 1/2 hours leafing through 20 years of catalogs to get a sense of the print's rarity. "When I gave up and didn't find it, I thought how nice it would be to have all this information in one book." He published his first guide in 1978, with 13,000 listings.

Until recently Gordon's annual editions have had no competition. Now, other general and specialized guides are appearing. Why so many? "It is the old Yankee competitive spirit," said dealer Peter Hastings Falk, editor of Print Price Index '92 (Sound View Press, $149), which debuted in November. This fall, Auction Index Inc. will introduce Leonard's Annual Price Index of Prints, Posters & Photographs, edited by Susan Theran.

Mr. Falk's book, geared to general antiques dealers who buy estates, includes prices from specialized print sales held at major international auctions along with broader sales at small auction houses. Several specialized indices to the 32,000 entries can assist inexperienced users. Mr. Falk says his larger and more accurate second edition, available by October, will include gallery price ranges.

Already covering retail prices (those asked, not necessarily attained) gathered from dealers' catalogs and stock lists, including many lower-priced prints rarely appearing at auction, is Lawrence's Dealer Print Prices 1992 (Long & Strider Press, $79), edited by Lawrence L. Mehren II. Sources wanted their identities private, so prices are listed without attribution. Some low-priced dealers apparently use Mr. Lawrence's guide to prove they undersell the market.

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