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What's the Value of a Signature on an Art Print?

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Several years before his death in 1987, Andy Warhol sat down and signed his name on copies of the tabloid magazine Interview, of which he was the editor. Regularly costing $2, he charged buyers $50 for these signed copies and they sold pretty fast. As with much of Warhol's work, he wanted to demonstrate the public's all-consuming fascination with celebrity by highlighting those who would believe that his name had value in and of itself. But he wasn't suggesting that people revamp their thinking.

The art print market is one where signatures count for a lot, and hundreds of artists have gotten on the bandwagon. An artist's name on a print can increase the price by two or more times, and creators generally view signing and numbering works as a valuable source of income for themselves.

This is not to say that signed prints have intrinsic value only to the autograph hound. Many artists and dealers contend that by signing a print the artist approves and endorses it, and, implicitly, claims it as his or her own work. However, in most cases, artists have no more involvement in the technical processes of printmaking than simply tiring out their arms signing the finished works.

In some cases, the entire economic value of a print is in the signature. Salvador Dali and Marc Chagall both signed blank pieces of paper on which reproductions of their most famous works were to be made. Picasso's granddaughter, Marina, published a series of the artist's prints to which she signed her name (her signature, it was said, looked remarkably like Picasso's). In all of these instance, the artists never saw the finished prints but, still, the prints sell at prices that lead one to assume they are original works of art in some way.

"A signature has a certain cache, and some buyers believe that a work with the artist's name on it has some investment quality," said Nicholas Stogdon, former head of the art print department at Christie's. "The real issue, however, is what kind of print it is and the degree to which the artist was involved in its production. The secondary market [resale potential] of most signed prints is poor and Christie's tends to deflect inquiries whenever possible."

He noted that an "original print, where an artist himself worked on it," has a longer lasting value than a photographic reproduction "which the artist did no more than sign." An etching, for instance, requires an artist to draw an image onto a metal plate with a stylus (an acid bath later burns the design into the metal), and impressions are taken from that. Picasso made several thousand of them; it was a medium in which he chose to express himself, and one can assume that had he preferred to paint the image he would have.

A lithograph is also classified as an original work, because the artist must draw directly onto a metal plate or a stone with a crayon or greasy pencil (printers ink is then rolled onto the image, adhering only to the drawn areas). Engravings, linoleum cuts, woodcuts and silkscreen prints (serigraphs) are, too, viewed as originals when created by the artist. There are additionally reproductive prints in which an artist or craftsman makes an etching or lithograph from a painting done by someone else. Editions of this kind were done for a number of major artists, including Raphael and Turner as well as most of the Japanese ukiyo-e printmakers of the 18th and 19th centuries.

A colotype, on the other hand, is a photomechanical reproduction of a work of art, such as a poster. Colotypes can be done quite well, but they are a product of advanced printing techniques and are not technically considered art multiples unless one believes that there is something magical in the mechanical process. A not-too-dissimilar type of print is a "giclee," which begins as a painting before being photographed, scanned into a computer and then reproduced on paper (or on some other surface) by ink jet printer. These kinds of print generally have the least direct involvement of the artist who may or may not be asked to sign and number the final results. In theory, photo-reproductions should cost considerably less than other print media, although that is not always the case.

The tradition of artists signing their prints is less than a hundred years old -- before that, artists often used monograms. Artists such as Toulouse-Lautrec and Pierre Bonnard would sign some and not others, depending on the wishes and ego of the collector. They often signed works as they sold them and those for which there was no demand in the artists' lifetime went unsigned. The value of both signed and unsigned prints is the same as there is no question of the artists not authorizing or approving them for sale. The artists sold them, after all.

The convention of artists signing all of the prints in an edition at one time is more recent and is generally said to date from the 1930s when a Paris dealer, Leo Spitzer, convinced a few of the major artists of the day (including Matisse and Picasso) to produce elegant reproductions of their work that they would sign and he would sell.

"A Picasso with a signature may be worth twice as much as one without a signature," said Mark Rosen, former head of the print department at Sotheby's, which sells approximately thousands of prints per year with prices ranging from a few hundred dollars to over $100,000. "Chagall did a series of prints called 'Daphne and Chloe' and those that are signed are worth 10 times as much as those that are unsigned. Otherwise, they are the same prints."

Most artists are well aware that their signature means more money for their works. Picasso did one series of etchings in the 1930s called "The Vollard Suite" that he started signing in the 1950s and '60s as a way of increasing contributions for left-wing political causes he championed. Norman Rockwell and Andrew Wyeth signed a series of prints, respectively, to help support the museums featuring their work (Rockwell's museum is in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, Wyeth's is in Brandywine River, Pennsylvania). Other artists have less philanthropic uses for the money they make from their signatures.

An artist's signature also attests to the work's authenticity. There can be problems, however, when a signature has been forged onto a photo-reproduction, for instance, or when the signature has been printed onto the paper along with the artist's image (that can be detected by looking through a magnifying glass for the printing dots in the signature).

The art print market is an area rife with deception and misinformation. Collectors are sold "limited editions" that are limited only by the number of people who will buy them, and a wide array of price-determining terminology -- "signed by the artist," "numbered by the artist," "artist's proof," "printer's proof," "limited edition" -- often rather confuses than enlightens would-be buyers. The differences between kinds of prints are often brushed over by dealers anxious to make a sale.

Of course, not all prints are overpriced or dealers all con-men, but it helps to know something about prints: How they were made, to what degree was the artist involved in their production, how many works were printed at one time, was the printing plate destroyed or can it be used again to print up more, who is the printer, have any other print editions been created of this image. These factors, plus the quality of the work and the renown of the artist, determine the real value of a print. A signature, however, may make a buyer overlook other things that are important, such as the price.