Art prints: The (relatively) inexpensive way to start an art collection

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Given the current economy, most people probably aren't thinking about buying art. However, as savvy investors often point out, going against the prevailing current can be quite profitable. Besides, President Bush has told us that we are supposed to pour our tax refund checks back into the economy. Buying art is a great way to do just that--after all, you buy the art and the artist spends the money on booze, drugs and cheese. This, in turn, makes it possible for the breweries, distilleries, dairies and drug dealers to hire more employees, leading to economic recovery and a bright, shiny future. Best of all, you end up with a beautiful piece of art to hang on your wall!

If you've looked at art prices recently, you've probably noticed that most art pieces are really, really expensive. Unless you plan on visiting one of those "starving artists" shows that feature a lot of boring, uninspired landscapes, you're probably going to pay at least a few thousand dollars for a decent painting, and the prices go up quickly when you start looking at work by well-known and well-regarded artists. On the other hand, artists' prints tend to be an outstanding value. They cost a fraction of the price of paintings while offering a good investment opportunity.To learn a little bit more about investing in art, I decided to talk to an expert. Jennifer Watson is the former director of the Washington Printmakers Gallery and currently works in the New York art scene. She agreed to spend a couple of minutes teaching me a few key points about artist's prints.

Who collects art prints?

Almost everybody! Wealthier investors who collect paintings often collect prints as well, as they sometimes want to own as much of an artist's work as possible. Artists are also another major group that collects prints, as it enables them to get a feeling for the other artists who are out there. Besides that, famous people from Edgar Allen Poe to Phil Collins to Sam Waterston have collected prints.

What should I look for when buying a print?

The first consideration should always be whether or not you like the art itself; regardless of whether or not a print goes up in value, your appreciation of it will make the purchase worthwhile. Ultimately, even the most sophisticated art collectors often base their buying decisions on their enjoyment of a particular artist.

If you're looking for a print that will go up in value, you will want to consider the artist's potential to appreciate. While this is very difficult to predict, there are a few variables that you can research in order to narrow the field. One of the first is the question of whether or not the artist also does paintings. While prints are a popular medium, they are nowhere near as volatile as paintings. To put it bluntly, artists who paint are much more likely to be seen, to be appreciated, and to be sold. Similarly, artists who enter major events like the Basel Fair and the Whitney Biennial are also more likely to increase in value.

Another way to determine which artists are likely to appreciate in value is by reading ARTNews, Artforum, and other trade magazines. These resources will tell you who is represented by the blue-chip galleries, like Pace Wildenstein, Gagosian, and Paula Cooper. Similarly, you might want to look at the artists that are being shown by the top auction houses, like Christie's or Sotheby's, or smaller, prominent houses like Phillips dePury, Doyle, and Bonham's. By basing your investments on the choices of major dealers, you can benefit from their expertise, as well as their efforts on behalf of the artists.

Once you get a feeling for who is currently hot in the art world, you can do some further research to ascertain their potential for growth. Again, this is an area in which galleries and auction houses can help you out; these companies are invested in increasing the popularity of their artists, so they are often willing to give you all sorts of useful information, including artists' bios, lists of present and upcoming commissions, and awards that the artists have received. This can help you predict which artists are going to break.

Can you give me an example?

Sure! Elizabeth Murray was a dramatic and revolutionary post-minimalist painter who achieved considerable renown in the art world, but was not very well known in mainstream society. In the mid-1990's, she accepted a commission to install a mural at the 59th Street and Lexington Avenue subway station in New York City. It was a beautiful, bold work, and it really captured the attention of non-collectors. Suddenly, her popularity exploded and she became famous outside of the art world. In terms of collections, her earlier work quickly went up in value.

What if you want to buy art from an artist who hasn't been discovered yet?

This is a lot harder and requires a lot more analysis. One method for finding great undiscovered talent is looking at schools. For example, several prominent artists, including Brice Marden, Chuck Close, and Nancy Graves, all studied Art at Yale in the early 1960's. If you were able to find a lesser known Yale student from that period, you might be able to get prints or paintings that would appreciate considerably. Of course, they also might not do very much at all!

If you're looking to spend a little bit of money on a lesser-known artist with the potential to become more valuable, one good place to go is regional printmaker's galleries or collectives. Often, these galleries feature artists who aren't as well known, but are ambitious and skillful. Also, galleries and collectives sometimes host juried competitions, like the Washington Printmakers Gallery's National Small Works Show. By attending these events, you can benefit from the expertise of the jury members, who are often well-known figures in the art world.

Another option, of course, is to go for a longshot and visit showings at art schools. You will sometimes find art that is beautiful from artists who have real potential. At the very least, buying student art is a great way to encourage the next generation of artists!

Bruce Watson is a freelance writer, blogger, and all-around cheapskate. He didn't have the heart to ask if his "limited-edition" Rat Fink posters are ever going to go up in value.

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