The Fine Print: Contemporary Art at Down-to-Earth Prices
“Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time,” wrote Thomas Merton, early 20th-century theologian, author and Trappist monk.
That’s a powerful and appealing statement, isn’t it? If you’ve been watching the prices that fine artworks have been commanding, you may have resigned yourself to the fact that you’ll have to find another (more affordable) way to “find and lose” yourself. Take heart and take note: prints provide the opportunity to own high-quality works by modern art visionaries, including Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, and Keith Haring, at a fraction of the cost of originals.
That sounds like a fulfilling way to experience the duality of art appreciation described by Merton, so to gain some perspective about collecting contemporary prints we turned to an expert: Wade Terwiliger, co-owner of Palm Beach Modern Auctions.
“Contemporary art is hot, hot, hot, and increasing prices reflect that interest,” Terwiliger said. “As prices for original works of art by noteworthy artists have skyrocketed, prints have gained recognition as a more affordable way for collectors to obtain images by these artists. We’re seeing a broad range of prices for prints, with collectors worldwide getting in on the action online.”
Collecting Tip: Always, always, always ask questions. It’s important to find out the dimensions, the condition, and if artwork has been examined out of its frame.
Solid provenance and/or documentation are a focus for many collectors. So are good names and signed editions, Terwiliger said. And it goes without saying, condition is also an important factor. However, as Terwiliger explained, there’s no single specific factor that outweighs all others. “What we’ve seen is that buyers will determine their own priorities from among this list of criteria,” he said.
During their years of serving consignors and collectors, Palm Beach Modern Auctions has done well with icons of different art movements, according to Terwiliger. They include a number of market- and time-tested artists, including these five luminaries of the contemporary art realm:
Keith Haring (American, 1958-1990) – Haring tapped into his ability to draw at an early age, observing and learning from his father, who drew cartoons for entertainment. This early influence is evident in much of his work, which often has cartoon-like imagery. However, the themes and topics addressed in his work were not always light-hearted subjects about life and love, but also serious matters such as apartheid, AIDS, and drug addiction.
Haring’s work appeals to all age groups, Terwiliger said. Collectors can obtain at auction pieces from Haring’s Pop Shops operation, such as tote bags, for less than $1,000. Limited edition prints can be had for $3,000-$5,000 at auction. At the upper end of the spectrum, a print of “Three Lithographs: One Plate” signed, circa 1985, sold for $40,000 during a February 2017 auction at Palm Beach Modern Auctions.
“While his original works sell in the millions, it’s incredibly exciting that a print from the same artist can be accessible and affordable,” Terwiliger said.
Ellsworth Kelly (American, 1923-2015) – At one time, Ellsworth Kelly was considered an artist beyond definition, in that he produced works in a variety of disciplines. He was a painter, sculptor and printmaker, and left his mark on the development of Minimalism, Hard-edge painting, and Pop Art.
During World War II, Kelly served as a member of the “Ghost Army,” a unit tasked with using inflatable tanks to misdirect enemies. His works have appeared in exhibitions around the world, and in permanent commissions such as a mural in Paris, and a memorial for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
“If you have a bigger budget or are advancing your collection, Ellsworth Kelly prints are worth considering, but they are in high demand,” Terwiliger said. “His works are very appealing to collectors, as they are colorful, pure, and though seemingly simple, always absorb the viewer into an unexpected experience.”
Collecting Tip: “It is essential not just for a beginning collector, but for all collectors, to deal with someone – a gallery, auction house or dealer – that you feel comfortable with. Whether you are buying online or in person, you are making an investment, and that should involve, to some degree, having a relationship of trust in place with the seller.”
Bridget Riley (British/American, b. 1931) – Like the other artists discussed here, Riley identified a love of and ability to create art at an early age. Deeply involved in the Op-Art movement, Riley reportedly had a childhood fascination with observing cloud formations and the interplay of color and light.
“Specifically, Riley’s graphic black and white geometric-form artworks are most appealing to collectors and are solid market performers,” said Terwiliger, citing the recent sale of “Untitled (Fragment 7)” from an edition of 75 for $25,000 at a May 6, 2017 Palm Beach Modern Auctions event.
Takashi Murakami (Japanese/American, b. 1962) – “Murakami is current, and his works are full of life…a younger generation’s Warhol or Haring,” Terwiliger noted. “We have a young staff who just love him. The recurring characters in his work draw you into a narrative.”
Described by Interview magazine as operating a “multi-tentacled enterprise,” Murakami – in addition to creating paintings and sculptures that fuse Japanese traditions with pop culture images – founded a company that manages and promotes artists, hosts art festivals, produces art-related merchandise, runs a gallery for young Japanese artists, and has collaborated with musicians and designers.
Roy Lichtenstein (American, 1923-1997) – Lichtenstein is an artist with universal appeal. It is reported that, as a child, he was a fan of science-fiction radio programs, and thought his life observed and extensively studied nature. He also served in the army, and later as an art instructor at the university level.
Although he is credited with creating various pieces that incorporated elements of Surrealism and Cubism, it is Lichtenstein’s eye-filling, pixelated pop art that is most recognizable. The breadth of Lichtenstein’s work also provides opportunities for a collection to evolve along with the interest and investment of collectors, Terwilliger explains.
“What I like about Lichtenstein is that he spans a number of collecting ranges, from $500 to $800 to prints that sell for $40,000. A collector could start with a poster in the low to mid hundreds and work their way up to $2,000 to $3,000, such as the “Crying Girl” mailer and from there to the $5,000 to $8,000 range, such as “Pyramids” or “Mermaid.”
Collecting Tip: “For works over several thousand dollars, I’d recommend buying prints that have provenance and, if possible, accompanying documentation. Your standards may require a line of provenance that dates back to the artist’s studio, or to a reputable gallery, but be sure to gather such information and keep it on file for all the prints in your collection.”
“Contemporary art challenges us…it broadens our horizons. It asks us to think beyond the limits of conventional wisdom.” – Eli Broad, American entrepreneur, philanthropist and co-founder of the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation