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Collectors' focus: Old Master Prints--in particular works by Durer and Rembrandt--have achieved recordbreaking prices in recent times. Although the market is small, dealers report current interest in unique impressions by baroque and mannerist printmakers.

Old Master print collecting, once a widespread activity, has for some years slipped from the headlines, regarded by some as a backwater and of interest only to connoisseurs. This January however, Christie's New York, which revived its dedicated Old Master Prints sales in 2006, presented the sale 'Albrecht Durer: Masterpieces from a Private Collection'. This comprised 62 exceptional impressions of some of Durer's best-known prints, encompassing engravings, woodcuts and etchings. The sale was expected to achieve in excess of $4.6m but as the evening wore on, records fell. With 47 lots sold from a total of 62, the sale achieved $6m, with a new world record for a Durer print--$866,500 for a first impression of the celebrated 1515 woodcut, The Rhinoceros (estimate $100,000-$150,000; see Market Review in the March issue of Apollo).

Tim Schmelcher, senior specialist at Christie's London's Prints Department, comments: 'What is mostly in demand are fine impressions of important or rare subjects by the great printmakers, mainly Rembrandt and Durer.' At its Renaissance sale the following day, Titian's The Submersion of Pharaoh's Army in the Red Sea, the monumental woodcut printed from 12 blocks dated around 1514-15, sold for $854,500 (Fig. 2). Both results demonstrate that there may not be many collectors of rare and important prints, but the few that remain are determined.

It was in the 15th century, as paper became plentifully available in Europe, that printmaking first became popular among artists and audiences. The humble woodcut, a crude but affordable art form, reached its apogee early in the hands of Albrecht Durer (1471-1528), who was based in Nuremberg. He quickly also mastered the more sophisticated technique of metal engraving, which was originally favoured by those who had trained as painters or goldsmiths, such as the southern German painter Martin Schongauer (c. 1445-91). It was at this time too that the market was born, as the circulation of multiple images created an appetite across Europe for the finest examples. For the next 500 years collecting prints was a central activity for collectors at all levels, from princes to the diarist Samuel Pepys. By the Regency period in England, the heyday of print collecting, the print shop was a significant hub of urban social life. Even in the early 20th century, in Europe and America, there was a community of collectors of both Old Master and contemporary prints. Today, however, as Emanuel von Baeyer, a London-based dealer, remarks: 'This interaction hardly exists.'


Mr von Baeyer suggests that today's market is focused on important impressions by major artists, above all Durer and Rembrandt. 'But there is another world out there--less well-known Dutch artists like Lucas van Leyden [1494-1533] as well as German printmakers of the 17th and 18th century and French rococo prints.' He looks 'for the uniqueness of the print, odd colours or odd histories'. Christopher Mendez, another renowned London dealer, confirms: 'Prints as art is what everyone wants. The old collector who wanted every print of Hollar is history.' But there is still a market, especially among art historians, for more specialised pieces. Mendez recommends the work of Stefano della Bella (1610-64; Fig. 3), and is currently offering a trio of fine etchings by this Italian baroque printmaker (price on application). He also namechecks the aforementioned Bohemian Wenceslaus Hollar (1607-77), the German 18th-century etcher Carl Wilhelm Kolbe (1759-1835) and 'anything after Adam Elsheimer [1578-1610]'.



Elsewhere in Europe, F. Carlo Schmid of venerable print dealer C.G. Boerner reports that, since 2000, there has been a resurgent market in mannerist prints. Mr Schmid cites the influence of Georg Baselitz, who collects Italian examples, especially work by Parmigianino (1503-40). Mr Schmid emphasises that price depends greatly on whether the image is a lifetime impression, dark or silvery, or posthumous. 'You are always looking for the earliest prints, the connection with the artist, or the strongest impression.'

American dealer Allan Stone of Hill-Stone, Inc. reports: 'All collecting is eclecticism, not the catalogue-oriented collecting of years past.' This means, however, that 'people are more willing to move out of their area and find images that are compelling'. Despite 'the worst possible constriction of supply', with neither museums nor collectors selling, people are buying French and Italian prints from the 16th century and what Mr Stone describes as 'curious corners of the 18th century. Collectors need to look beyond Rembrandt and Durer.' He suggests that too often people confound value and price, not recognising the quality of relatively affordable ornamental prints, for instance, or mannerist printmaking in the Netherlands.

US dealer David Tunick believes that there is no one formula in the business that constitutes success. He confirms that on the whole Old Master print collectors have intellectual curiosity and confidence in their judgement, but advises anyone new to 'look at the picture. Think about it as a work of art. Then get advice about the technical details.' James Goodfriend of New York-based C. & J. Goodfriend reports that the market in the United States has shrunk, especially for anything under $5,000. He suggests that the future is probably still in Europe, to a lesser extent in Japan and possibly in China, given the perennial attraction of Old Master prints to the very wealthy. He suggests that there are fine bargains to be had, especially with Dutch landscape prints from the 17th century (besides Rembrandt), and with the work of Jacques Callot. He cites the only portrait by Georg Pencz (c. 1500-50; Fig. 1), one of the Little Masters of Nuremberg, of Johann Friedrich, Elector of Saxony, as an example of a currently undervalued work.

Finally, Severine Nackers, head of prints at Sotheby's Europe, reports that the auction market in general is stable. 'Rembrandt has seen some increase in his prices since the anniversary of his birth in 2006. For Goya the market reached a height in 2008.' Indeed, the highest recorded price for an Old Master print, $990,000 for Rembrandt's Christ Crucified between the Two Thieves: The Three Crosses, was achieved, in a ferocious bidding war, in 1990. This drypoint and engraving, perhaps Rembrandt's most famous image, sold through William Doyle Galleries, New York. Sotheby's London offered a fine impression of the fourth state of this print, dated 1653, in its prints sale on 19 March. At the time of writing, the sale is still a week away, but the work is expected to fetch 200,000 [pounds sterling]-300,000 [pounds sterling].
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Title Annotation:COLLECTORS' FOCUS: OLD MASTER PRINTS; Albrecht Durer
Author:Crichton-Miller, Emma
Date:Apr 1, 2013
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