Prints represent a great opportunity to buy a work by an artist at a more accessible price point.

‘Garden’, a lithograph by Scottish artist Hannah Frank

‘Garden’, a lithograph by Scottish artist Hannah Frank (1908-2008). The Glasgow School artist rarely signed her prints but this copy was signed, mounted and framed which made it rarer. It sold for £340 at McTear’s in April 2019.

Since prints were produced in multiples, their greater availability means the prices they make at auction tend to be less than a single original artwork. Indeed, even prints by some of the major names in the art market can be bought on a relatively modest disposable income.

Prints are often seen therefore as the entry point into the market for new collectors, where they can dip a toe in the water without taking the plunge of buying more expensive original works such as oil paintings.

But even seasoned collectors will often seek out prints – especially those that appreciate the level of detail, technical accomplishment and the intricate involvement of the artist in the creation of the works.

Plenty of prints are available to buy at auctions on, both at specialist fine art sales and also at general auctions.

What is a print?

A print is an impression made by any method involving transfer from one surface to another. Consider a print as an artwork that has been manually reproduced by the artist (or printed under the artist’s direct supervision).

The artist creates an image on block, plate, stone or screen from which the final print is produced. The artist also selects the paper that the image is printed on and decides on the number of copies printed.

Once the copies are printed, the artist often signs and numbers each of the prints.

‘Moon Ballet’, a lithograph by Hannah Frank

‘Moon Ballet’, a lithograph by Scottish artist Hannah Frank (1908-2008). Signed, mounted and framed, it sold for £190 at McTear’s in April 2019.

The market for prints

The market for fine art prints encompasses a wide range of periods, styles and individual artists from the great Old Masters who utilised the then-new technology of the printing press in the 16th century through to Contemporary screenprints of the 21st century.

The variety of techniques adopted by artists to make reproductions of their work has led to an array of different forms of prints including woodcuts, aquatints, engravings, etchings, mezzotints, lithographs, linocuts and silkscreens.

While the sheer number of different types of prints and terms used in this sector can be confusing for new collectors, you shouldn’t be put off by what might at first might seem like an esoteric field. A number of guides and online glossaries can be easily found via a simple web search and many new collectors quickly enjoy immersing themselves in the specifics of the print market.

Learning more not only increases your knowledge, enjoyment and fascination but could well pay dividends when setting out to buy.

What to look for

Some of the most sought-after prints are those where the artist has direct involvement its creation. In short, the closer the work is connected to the artist’s hand, the more desirable it becomes.

Often the artist’s proof copy of the print therefore will be more desirable than the general run of prints, especially if it indicates changes that were made in the creative process.

As a general rule, the most desirable impressions of a print are those printed closest to the date indicated in the publisher’s imprint – clues can be found in the paper, lettering and other markings (or absence thereof). Sometimes prints were made in different ‘states’ – meaning different versions were produced as changes were made to the woodblock or plate.

Some collectors will seek out low numbers from an edition run, but these are not necessarily important as they usually do not reflect the order in which the prints were made, just the order in which the artist signed them.

Prints become more desirable if they are signed, dated and numbered. Evidence that the print has been produced by a well-known printer or studio can also add to its allure.

However, rarity is usually the key factor in print values. The rarer the edition and the smaller the print-run, the higher the value – it’s a matter of supply and demand.

As a rule of thumb, anything with an edition of more than about 250 is unlikely to be regarded as rare in terms of 20th century prints.


Along with rarity, condition is the other key factor in determining values. Issues such as folding, scuff marks, cropping of margins, trimming for framing or pasting into albums, scratches, tears and creases can all create problems. Has the colour faded? How white is the paper? All this needs to be considered.

Prints that have undergone significant repair and restoration will be worth less than those that have survived in their original condition which are the ones preferred by collectors.

The auction catalogue should tell you about the condition of the print but you can request a condition report for further information in this regard. If the print does require some attention, there are plenty of restorers who can help.

Buyers tend to pay more for examples that have strong contrasts in terms of the outline and colour of the image on the paper. The way a print is made therefore can have a significant effect on its value. For example, if what is known as the intaglio process is used, such as with etchings, aquatints, mezzotints and engravings, the print plate tends to wear out after about 100 impressions.

Drypoints, another intaglio process, often have limited runs because the softening of the image caused by a burr effect either side of the line wears out after a few prints.

What to do next

Decide how much you’d like to spend and use the search facility on to find prints coming up for sale.

You can filter your search by, among other things, price and by location of the auction house to narrow down your selection.

To research recent prices at auction to see how much different prints sold for you can also try out the Price Guide.

If you are new to bidding check out our guides to buying at auction – it’s easy once you know how.

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