shayla Alarie | (it’s alarie, like gallery)
Written by Miranda K. Metcalf | Published 27 feb 2019
Shayla Alarie and I worked together at Davidson Galleries in Seattle, Washington for close to five years. During that period of my life, I spent more time with her than anyone else, upwards of 50 hours a week counting openings and after work drinks. She was like my family. We needed each other, we laughed with each other, we had each other’s backs, and, like all families, occasionally annoyed each other intentionally or otherwise. Alarie is a big thinker, and a big feeler. She has an astonishing capacity for boundaries, she knows her worth, and she’s not afraid to ask for it. She’s kind of like Don Draper, but with feminism.
Alarie knows more about the print market, and the gallery world than any anyone I know. What follows is a no nonsense nuts-to-soup guide to it all: collecting, authentication, print fairs, certificates of authenticity, secondary market, primary market, catalogue raisonnés, and auctions. So this article is going to be much more fact driven than the ones in the past. It’s straight from Alarie’s brain to your eyeballs, and is everything you, or your students, or your aunt need to know about the commercial side of the fine print world.
I can't recommend highly enough listening to the podcast episode that’s coming out next week. The sheer wealth of information Alarie has on this subject is something to behold, but the episode also has a wonderful getting-the-band-back-together vibe that makes it a particularly charming one. She also covers topics I don’t get into here like the particular ups and downs of working with collectors, and the joy and pain of being a Shirley-Temple-curled, Paul-Newman-eyed woman navigating the old boys club of the antique print world.
Primary versus Secondary Art Markets:
The primary market is when a work of art comes up for sale for the first time; it’s when the price is established. The art object goes from artist to collector, often by way of a dealer, but not always. The secondary market comes into play when the initial purchaser decides to sell the work. In the United States, most often this transaction takes place without the artist being involved in anyway. The work moves from collector to collector, sometimes by way of the artist’s current gallery. The artist is not entitled to any of the proceeds from secondary market sales when the collector stands to potentially make thousands if the artist’s career has soared since the time of purchase. This, however, is changing. In California and most of Europe, artists are entitled to a royalty up to 4% in the case of the UK. For perspective, remember the Banky shredding? Banksy would be entitled to £41,680 of the £1,042,000 sale. For the most part, this applies solely to sales taking place from one art professional to another, so if you want to sell your neighbor your Chihuly to pay for your cat’s Prozac, there’s no legal obligation to get the artist involved. Some gallerists voluntarily cut artists in on secondary market sales of their work. If you’re an artist on the hunt for a gallery, this is certainly something to bring up during the courting period.
Buy what you love. Both Alarie and I use this as the standard to which all art collecting should be held, because if you buy something you love,and because it is worth to you what you are paying, that cannot be taken away from you. No matter what the market does.
The best way to collect prints is to go to someone who is a specialist in the field. Alarie would often come across what could be incredibly costly mistakes from dealers who just didn’t know what they were doing when it came to printmaking. Everything from not knowing the difference between a reproduction Currier and Ives lithograph, and an original Currier and Ives lithograph, and selling the former as the later, to not knowing the difference in value for something signed in the stone/plate verse signed in pencil on the paper. Most of these mistakes were done in good faith, they weren’t setting out to rip anyone off, but nonetheless the buyer often got less than what they paid for.
For a list of reputable print dealers see International Fine Print Dealers Association website, an invaluable resource. Membership is conditional on dealers practicing the highest ethical standards when it comes to print dealing. Keep in mind, that many artists feel that the white cube gallery model is not for them, and are not interested in an intermediary dealer. Buying directly from an artist is always a good way to ensure authenticity.
The role dealers play in a world where collectors have almost immediate access to artists who want to be found is the subject of a whole other episode. However, as a dealer myself, I have to put a plug in here that if you find out about an artist through a dealer please do make your purchase through that dealer. While many artists opt to pursue commercial success outside of the white cube, others find handing over all selling aspects to someone else a relief, and that’s not even getting into the role gallerists can play as mentors and career coaches. If people stop patronising galleries the the support they give artists will disappear.
Let’s say you’ve decided to purchase a Pablo Picasso etching. Congrats! Actually, don’t do that, he was a misogynist. Buy an Käthe Kollwitz etching instead. Congrats! But what Kollwitz? How do you know what you’re getting is real? What does it mean to be real? How do you know if you’re getting a fair price? What role does condition play?
Different kinds of prints:
A signed, lifetime impression backed up by a catalogue raisonné:
Generally speaking, these are the most valuable prints. As the name suggests, they were produced during the artist’s lifetime, and signed by the artist, in pencil on the print itself. Presumably the artist had a close hand in the design and production of the image, and by signing it they are saying that they consider the print a part of their oeuvre. Catalogue raisonnés are comprehensive and annotated publications, which include every work an artist produced. They are incredible undertakings of research, and are meticulously put together. They often include annotations such as the kind of paper(s) something was printed on, size of paper, size of plate, or color variations. Many catalogue raisonné are so rare they are worth more than a print from the artist who is the subject of the book. Having access to a catalogue raisonnés is one of the most important factors separating reputable print dealers from a gallery that’s just stumbled into a print collection.
Restrikes from an original plate, stone or block.
These are prints printed after an artist’s death, but using his or her original matrices. Many, but not all of restrikes, are commissioned by an artist’s estate or the institution which houses their matrices. Restrikes are still considered original works but have less market value than a signed, lifetime impression.
Reproductions are works created after an original work of art. For example, if someone took a photograph of an original Alexander Calder lithograph and printed it out onto nice paper with a digital printer or through CMYK offset photolithography. These were the works that caused the most heartbreak from people coming into the gallery to resell their collection. Collectors would often have purchased a print in a good faith, and for a fair price for an original, only to bring it us, sometimes decades later, and learn it was nothing more than a reproduction, worth only the paper it was printed on. Once you know what you’re looking for, most reproductions are easy to spot with the naked eye. Reproduction processes almost always leave a dot pattern in the image, which is visible under magnification - you’ll see little dots of cyan, magenta, yellow, and black that all overlap to trick your brain into seeing a full range of colour. Things get even more confusing when you bring to light that some reproductions can be authorised by the artist or the artist’s estates. Artists at times even sign their reproductions, but authorised or not, signed or not, they have as much value as any poster.
Disclaimer: Please keep in mind that some artists use offset lithography, photographic print processes, or digital printmaking as part of their original printmaking practice. It gets more confusing the deeper you dig, so again, going to a reputable dealer is ideal.
Fakes and forgeries
While these get most of the press and drama, they are the rarest to come across in the field. It is extremely difficult to create a fake which cannot be spotted under magnification. One would have to take on the task of remaking the lithograph, etching, or woodcut from scratch, not to mention matching paper, ink, and signature. For the most part, prints simply don’t have enough value to make it worth a forger’s time. That being said, it does happen, most often to the works of Joan Miró, Alexander Calder and Salvador Dalí. Dalí being so troublesome that some dealer won’t even take on his prints. The trails and tribulations of Dalí prints could be the subject of a whole podcast on their own.
Buying from auctions
Auctions are most always buyer beware situations. Meaning, that you if you purchase something and it turns out it’s been spray-mounted to a piece of cardboard you’re SOL. Some auction houses do have authenticators, which is ideal. However, with the vast majority of them, and of course online auction sites, you’re not going to get any kind of guarantee. Furthermore, an auction house is not going to provide a lot of information up front -- the more they claim, the more that have to back up. Which is one of the reasons why it’s best to get back to the “Do I love it?” model of collecting. If you get it home and it’s not exactly what you thought It would be, but you love the image you’re still going to be able to sleep at night.
One of the major drawbacks to purchasing from auction houses is that they’re not going to inspect a print outside of the frame, and frames hide a multitude of sins. Anything framed before the 1990s can expect to have some condition issues caused by the framing. Here are the most common:
Burning happens when material used in the framing process has leached acid on to the paper causing discoloration. This can come from the glue or the backing which can be simple cardboard.
This particular kind of burning is extremely common. The mat releases acid faster along the cut edge creating a halo of discoloration around the print.
Toning is exposure to light. When the print has been hung in sunlight for many years the UV rays burn and darkened the paper causing discoloration and uneven color. Much like my forearms since moving to Sydney.
Probably the most obvious to spot and well known culprit is foxing. When paper of any kind is kept in a humid environment it is at risk of foxing. While the exact cause of foxing isn’t known, it is likely from either fungus or impurities in the water from which the paper was made. Either way, it’s unsightly and will devalue your print.
But all hope is not lost, most of these issues can be addressed in the hands of a qualified paper conservator. Mat burn, toning, and foxing can be cleaned with the caveat that the methods the conservator will use are only safe on oil-based inks. If the print has any water-based ink, such as hand colouring or a collector’s stamp, those will be in danger of being washed away in the process.
(A note on collector’s stamps: with older works such as Dürer and Rembrandt, notable collector’s stamps have been cataloged, making this one way to authentic a piece.)
Provenance and Certificates of Authenticity
Historically, provenance for prints wasn’t tracked, which means that apart from certain exceptions, like those noted above, there is not going to be that kind of documentation for a print. As for certificates of authenticity, Alarie puts it best: “The presence of a certificate of authenticity does not mean that something is authentic. It just means that someone had a [computer] printer.” A bill of sale from a reputable gallery is worth more than any certificate of authenticity.
“The presence of a certificate of authenticity does not meant that something is authentic. It just means that someone had a printer.”
The Devil’s in the Details
While all of this may seem finicky and at times arbitrary, there are real human costs to these details. One of the most heartbreaking times for Alarie was the day an older man came in with a collection of what he thought were original lithographs by Joan Miró. He had been buying them for years off a late night television program at what would have been fair market value for original Miró lithographs. He considered them his savings account. He considered them his legacy. He had brought them to the gallery to resell them to help pay for his grandkids education. What first tipped Alarie off that something was amiss was that the images were from a publication called Derrière Le Miroir, a magazine which had included several original Miró lithographs in their publications. However, the lithographs being from a magazine were printed on relatively inexpensive paper and had a centrefold. The lithographs brought in by this gentleman were on quality paper and lacking the fold. The second tip was the images themselves. Alarie, having Miró’s catalogue raisonné to consult, realised that the lithographs appeared to be produced with some of, but not all of the original stones. This combined with the signatures being off rendered the prints valueless. Alarie had the unenviable task of breaking the news to this man.
This is one of the strangest things about our world of prints. Despite 500 years of history in the English language we’ve yet to standardise our verbiage. “Do you mean prints or prints?” “Graphic art? You mean, like, really explicit?” There are people out there who intentionally take advantage of this grey area with devastating consequences. These vagaries undermine the authority of what we all do, both in the eyes of collectors, and the general public. The best thing we can do in the face of this is be the educators. It is a statement so omnipresent as easily dismissed, but is nonetheless necessary.
Alarie never shied away from this. She is first and foremost an educator, and she always championed sharing knowledge about the prints, the artists, and the historical context in which they were working over closing a sale. (Although she was plenty talented at that as well.) We both loved gallery work deeply, and while neither one of us would have chosen to leave, I know that she is thriving in her new role as adjunct Art History Professor at Seattle University. They are damn lucky to have her, and I am damn lucky to know her.
Shayla Alarie on instagram:
@artsyhistorian and @quartzprojects